Friends, family show love for songwriter Jay Bennett

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times

TRIBUTE | Wilco co-founder was ‘mad scientist’

September 25, 2010

By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times

Jay Bennett cast a huge shadow over Chicago’s music community spanning two decades, first as a leading figure in the Champaign-Urbana music scene of the early 1990s, then as one of the two primary architects during Wilco’s fertile years between 1996 and 2002, and later as a producer and studio obsessive who challenged a long list of local and national bands to rethink all matters of sound.

Bennett died in May 2009 from an accidental overdose of Fentanyl from Duragesic patches used to address severe hip pain. He was 45. Tonight at Subterranean, several of his friends and family members are hosting a tribute that will feature songs from a posthumously released album Bennett was preparing before his death and other songs throughout his short but robust career as a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer.

To anyone who knew him, Bennett was a musician who found euphoria in discovering new sounds in the studio, whether from unorthodox arrangements of vintage microphones to seeing how everyday household items might find resonance when struck a certain way with, say, a mallet.

“He was as much a fan of how things sounded and the tonal qualities of an instrument than just playing instruments — that was part of the package for him,” says Steve Dawson, singer and songwriter in the band Dolly Varden, who will perform tonight.

“He was a mad scientist, just really enthusiastic in trying offbeat techniques,” says Dolly Varden guitarist Mark Balletto.

Singer-songwriter Allison Moorer, who hired Bennett as a studio musician, once said she considered him a musical savant. “He loves music. I can’t say that for everybody I’ve worked with. Honestly, he gets excited about everything,” she said.

That interest in creating homemade sounds, even if it meant burning the candle from both ends to chase them down, helped transition Wilco from playing straightforward country rock to the more sophisticated pop contrasts heard on “Summerteeth” (Reprise/Warner Bros.) and “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (Nonesuch/Warner Bros.), the band’s seminal works.

Tonight’s show will feature a complete re-creation of “Kicking at the Perfumed Air,” Bennett’s last album, performed by Bennett collaborators and admirers Edward Burch, Steve Frisbie, Dolly Varden and others. The second half of the show will feature Bennett songs culled from different periods in his life.

The event is also a beginning. It is launching a foundation in Bennett’s name that will award grants to local music education programs. Jeff Bennett, Jay’s older brother and only sibling, helped organize the foundation with their mother, Janis. Growing up in Rolling Meadows, Jeff Bennett says he remembers his brother discovering a discarded ukulele in their grandmother’s attic, stringing it with fishing wire and teaching himself how to play it by the day’s end.

“He always had an independent stream, musically,” Jeff Bennett says. “It was always important for him to follow music where it wanted to go, not because it was popular but because it was different. That authenticity was a really big deal to Jay.”

The foundation is waiting to issue its first grant, but Jeff Bennett says the idea is “uniquely Jay” because, having received two bachelor’s degrees and working on his master’s thesis in philosophy before he died, he loved school.

“Jay always knew he had a safe and comfortable place to play growing up, and not a lot of kids in the inner city have that,” Bennett says. “We’re looking for ways to give them a safe after-school activity, because why should they be sitting at home playing Guitar Hero when they could be playing guitar?”

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