Chicago rock collective Wilco is no stranger to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, having played the Fair Grounds twice. But this year, the band returns for the first time as a headliner to close down the Gentilly Stage Friday.
The return is also a homecoming for founding bassist John Stirratt, a Mandeville native. Stirratt lived in a French Quarter apartment during the early days of Wilco starting in the mid-1990s when the band ran hot with successive albums, including two beloved recordings that paired new music to unearthed lyrics written by Woody Guthrie.
That period announced Wilco as a band that didn’t sound comfortable rooted to a single genre but could be best defined both by its adventuresome spirit onstage and a shared aesthetic that ranged between country-rock icons The Byrds to German Krautrock.
While Wilco continued to release new music, it emerged as a powerful live band over the last decade, primarily due to a roster of musicians, including jazz guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche, who don’t feel constrained to one approach in their playing but instead are comfortable in the deconstruction of songs as much as they are in the liberation of patching them back together.
Stirratt says musical generosity is what continues to keep the musicians interested after so many years in the studio and on the road. Precious attachments to their respective abilities don’t necessarily steal focus; instead, this is a rock band that is most interested in connecting through shifting musical sensibilities instead of simply racking up a lot of notes.
“Everyone’s record collection comes to the forefront before ability,” he says. “Very often, it’s the latter for other bands. For us, we’re very conscious of giving some space to the music, and that can be very hard with the more people involved.”
Last year, Wilco released “Alpha Mike Foxtrot” on the dBpm label, a four-disc box set of live recordings and studio rarities that attempted to sum up the last 20 years in a single stroke. That wasn’t easy: Performances range from bouncy power-pop to confessional folk to wily noise-rock. Last December in Chicago, the band played a residency at the Rivera to play every song they ever recorded. It took six nights.
The process of looking back continues this year: “A.M.” on Sire/Reprise, the first album under the Wilco banner, was released 20 years ago in March. For Stirratt, making the album was a blur: He and band auteur Jeff Tweedy had just left the road in Uncle Tupelo, the influential country-punk band they played in with Jay Farrar, now with Son Volt.
Along with Uncle Tupelo drummer Ken Coomer and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston, the band drove to Easley Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, and recorded a batch of 12 songs Tweedy had stored up, as well as a few Stirratt produced.
“It happened so fast, which I think after all these years might be the best way to make a record,” Stirratt says. “It was fun, and I remember the music being good. We just didn’t want to sit around.”
In 1999, Stirratt relocated to Chicago, but his roots in New Orleans are firm.
His father operated a sno-ball supply business in Harahan where Stirratt periodically worked growing up. “I think I got more slice-of-life New Orleans out of that job than anywhere else,” he says. In high school, he and friends cruised across the causeway and slipped into clubs like Jimmy’s, Tipitina’s and even the Riverboat President, the vintage cruise boat that hosted rock bands on the water.
What stuck with him most was the radio that traveled across the lake. “Your Pal Al” Nassar on WRNO-FM and other local personalities introduced him to a wealth of local music — “I kind of assumed every town had a Meters. I didn’t really understand the regional magic New Orleans had. It was anything goes,” he says.
A few years later, when based in Oxford, Mississippi, to attend Ole Miss, he picked up the bass as a diversion from his guitar duties in The Hilltops, a country-punk band he formed that included his twin sister, Laurie Stirratt, on bass. That band flamed out within a few years but is considered a precursor to not just Uncle Tupelo and Wilco but also to Blue Mountain, the acclaimed roots-country trio Laurie Stirratt co-founded immediately afterward.
Years later, the siblings recorded “Arabella” (Broadmoor), an album they released under both their first names in 2004 that featured members of Wilco. Like the street name in Uptown New Orleans that they borrowed for the title, the music has a dreamy quality, with nods to the Faces and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The album is also a musical cousin to the Autumn Defense, the band he fronts with Wilco multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone.
These past few years have given Wilco members opportunities to chase side projects — Tweedy released an album with his drummer-son and produced two acclaimed albums by Chicago soul music great Mavis Staples. The band is also headlining Solid Sound, a summer destination festival they host in North Adams, Massachusetts. But Stirratt says amid all this activity, Wilco is also recording new songs. A new album, the band’s first in five years, should see the light of day in 2016.
Until then, on his day off in New Orleans, he hopes to catch a set somewhere in town by his favorite local band: New Orleans Banjos +2, a six-member Dixieland group that features Avery Stirratt, his father and life-long banjoist.
The elder Stirratt conducted family jam sessions at their grandmother’s house every Thanksgiving, and his son says his enthusiasm for music made a lasting impression on his children: “He is what the pure enjoyment of playing music with other people is all about.”
Wilco headlines the Gentilly Stage from 5:20 p.m. to 7 p.m. Friday.