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Uncle Tupelo's Rock And Country Combination Makes It One Of The Best Young Bands Around

Parry Gettelman

Orlando Sentinel, February 11, 1994

Uncle Tupelo didn't play a particularly long set at Orlando's Downtown Jazz & Blues Club Wednesday night. But the band is so intense, in its own inimitable way, that 75 minutes seemed about right.

On the surface, Uncle Tupelo is a pretty low-key bunch of guys. They aren't much for dressing up, jumping around or chatting. The closest they came to stage patter was when bassist-vocalist Jeff Tweedy asked the full house: ''How's the sound out there?''

Neither does Uncle Tupelo go in for big guitar solos, vocal histrionics or any of the other devices used to simulate passion in rock 'n' roll. The group doesn't need gimmicks - its music already has all the despair, anger, hope, black humor and wary joy you can stand. Its subtle but dramatic dynamic shifts, varied instrumental textures and rhythmic drive were worth 1,000 displays of fretboard finesse or laryngeal prowess.

Uncle Tupelo, which emerged from Belleville, Ill., four years ago, concentrated on the powerful thrash-and-twang material from its latest release, Anodyne. Songs such as ''Acuff-Rose,'' ''Slate'' and ''New Madrid'' hewed more toward the country end of the spectrum but radiated rock 'n' roll energy, a la the Flying Burrito Brothers or the Band. ''The Long Cut'' and ''Chickamauga'' raged like vintage Crazy Horse but had a honky-tonk undercurrent. On the hard-hitting ''We've Been Had,'' the lyrics burned with disillusionment, but the band just tore it up, kind of like the good old days when the Clash made alienation fun.

A cover of Doug Sahm's ''Give Back the Key to My Heart'' had that soulful Texas country flavor, with an added tension in the slow groove.

Everyone but drummer Ken Coomer swapped instruments to suit the songs. Tweedy switched between bass and guitar, singer-guitarist Jay Farrar took a few turns on mandolin and acoustic guitar, guitarist John Stirrat played bass on a few songs and Max Johnston alternated among lap steel, fiddle, mandolin and banjo. Farrar and Tweedy traded off on vocals - their voices are quite similar, but Farrar's is a bit more supple and country-flavored while Tweedy has a bit more punk-rock energy. They both sang strong harmonies - Tweedy even sounded a bit like a more forceful Roger McGuinn singing high harmony on ''Slate.''

It's hard to say whether Uncle Tupelo is the best country band playing rock or the best rock band playing country, but it's definitely one of the best young bands around, period.

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