"It's gonna be a mellow acoustic set," Pat Sansone says of his moment in the sun, down at the Harbor Town Amphitheater on Sunday, April 28th. His forecast matches that for the afternoon's weather. It will be an ideal setting for that rare chance to hear Sansone's songs, no doubt played with his usual musical dexterity. Better known as a multi-instrumentalist member of Wilco for the past 15 years, Sansone was a Wilco fan and a songwriter in his own right long before that.
He'll be selecting from twenty years' worth of songs he's contributed to the band Autumn Defense, founded with Sansone's friend John Stirratt in New Orleans. And even before that venture, Sansone was writing. "I was living in New Orleans for the back half of the 90s. At the studio where I worked in New Orleans, even before the Autumn Defense got going, I was working on a batch of solo material. I'm revisiting that stuff now to finally mix it properly and hopefully release it sometime later this year. It definitely has a kinship with Autumn Defense — very much influenced by the Zombies, the Beatles, the Kinks. English Psychedelic Pop."
To these ears, there are also plenty of echoes of American renegades like Todd Rundgren or Emitt Rhodes. "Big Star and all sorts of other things were influences too. Shoegaze. A weird mish-mash of stuff, which is not very New Orleans-y. As much as I love New Orleans, and I love it dearly, and certainly John loves it as well, I think one of the reasons we connected so strongly was we both felt a little bit outside of what was happening musically in New Orleans. There just wasn't much of an audience or interest for the kind of music we were making. I learned a lot in New Orleans, and I absorbed a lot of amazing music, but I didn't necessarily feel like I was part of it, other than being a fan. That's one of the reasons I left. I knew that the music that I was going to make and what I had to offer musically wasn't something that New Orleans really needed or wanted," he laughs.
Selections from the above mish-mash are what Sansone will be conjuring up Sunday, albeit in minimalist form. One of Autumn Defense's strengths is their harmonies. Though Sansone and Stirratt are not kin, they sing harmonies like they are. On record, it can be difficult to distinguish their voices, especially when layered together on songs like the early gem "The Sun In California."
"Working on that song was really a milestone in the realization of what we were about as a band," Sansone recalls. That number from their second album was by Stirratt; naturally Sansone focuses on his own songs when playing solo. "I know I'll be playing 'The August Song,' from our album Fifth
, and I'll play 'Feel You Now' from our self-titled album on piano."
For Wilco fans who haven't yet explored the Autumn Defense's discography, the work holds up beautifully, and may be a kind of skeleton key into Wilco's poppier moments.
"John and I had been doing the Autumn Defense for about five years before I got absorbed into the Wilco organism. It was a natural thing. I think the type of music that John and I connected over, was very much the same reason John and Jeff [Tweedy] connected. I remember hearing [Wilco album] Summerteeth
. I guess it came out around the same time that John and I were working on the first Autumn Defense record. And there's a similar heartbeat going on, between those two records."
While the albums are available for the ages, a performance by Autumn Defense is a rare thing. "I don't think we're gonna do anything this year, except for a performance at Solid Sound." That would be the Wilco-launched Solid Sound Festival
, June 28th-31st in North Adams, Massachusetts. That festival will also notably play host to the Memphis-based ensemble behind last year's Mellotron Variations
, in which Sansone was a key player, along with Robby Grant, Jonathan Kirkscey, and John Medeski. (More on their new album and Solid Sound performance in the near future).
The Mellotron Variations
project was clearly dear to Sansone's heart. "I was really transported by it. And I have to say the Mellotron has been very helpful to me as far as arranging goes, because you have all those colors, and those instruments at your fingertips. It's allowed me to do things I never would have been able to do without it."
Indeed, that experience will feed right back into the Autumn Defense's appearance at Solid Sound. "It will be fun," Sansone says, "because it's gonna be an acoustic performance with a string quartet. I wrote string arrangements for a handful of songs and I'm gonna be cranking out a few more. So, hopefully we can do an entire set with strings. That's the only Autumn Defense performance on the books this year."
As the band's song "Things On My Mind" goes, "Let's go, let's get in the sun." That, and the rarity of hearing those songs live, could well be an exhortation to attend Sunday's gathering by the river.
Pat Sansone and Crystal Shrine will appear at The River Series at the Harbor Town Amphitheatre, Sunday, April 28, 3:00 pm. $5 admission.