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Favorite Uncle

Rising star Uncle Tupelo makes even Enormous Richard feel inadequate

By Chris King

Riverfront Times, June 5-11, 1991

If you're anything like me, you've plunked down a lot of Cicero's cover charges and stood packed in a flesh ball with a lot of your peers to see Uncle Tupelo. If I'm right, all those Uncle Tupelo basement shows form a period in our lives. You can think back easily to those days, who you were seeing, what you were doing, who you were hiding from, and Jeff Tweedy bouncing off a wall, Jay Farrar lifting his head and peeking through a bang, Mike Heidorn's cigarette bouncing to the beat - it's all a part of it.

Those basement days aren't over - a lucky few of us got to see the guys play with Michelle Shocked on the spur of a recent moment down there - but Uncle does have bigger fish to fry nowadays. They sold out Mississippi Nights on their last show, and with the guidance of manager Tony Margherita and their guitar tuner (Brian Henneman, who also happens to play about the greatest electric guitar I've ever seen), they've put together a touring live show that is packing some mighty big rooms all over the map.

Exciting stuff, and those who are trying to keep track of it are a little bewildered. Not that they haven't earned every inch of it, not they don't have the act to merit the hype - it's just that when you hear that Michelle Shocked wants you to back her on her new album because her brother really digs you, well, that's bewildering no matter who you are. And to have your faces reproduced twice in Rolling Stone...

In short, Uncle Tupelo is doing well, really well, and this puts many of us in the St. Louis music scene in a strange position in relation to them. Besides Three Merry Widows, who have followed a similar track to a similarly sweet spot, and KINGOFTHEHILL, who as of their Spotlight write-up had never seen Uncle Tupelo, the rest of us have been sort of gazing up and saying "Wow."

It has taken me a long time to realize that this puts Uncle Tupelo in an awkward position in the scene. Their peers are too peer-like to treat them like stars, yet they can't approach them comfortably as peers, either, because of a complex mix of shyness, insecurity, and, I suppose, envy. I should say straight out that I may be speaking only for myself. I fell for Uncle Tupelo in those basement days, and when my band, Enormous Richard, got underway, I sort of assumed Uncle Tupelo was in another stratosphere. You could make good-natured jokes at their expense because they were obviously good enough to take it. (Which we did: In one song on The Almanac, we sing, "We're not Uncle Tupelo," to which we always add, if we sing that line live, "but we sort of wish we were.") And you could still dig their shows. But approaching them as a member of a band felt somehow wrong.

So imagine my amazement when Richard King of Columbia, MO's Blue Note, trying to find us a gig, tossed off, offhandedly, "Uncle Tupelo is coming in here. Maybe I could get you on that show." My heart inflated to about the size of Cicero's basement. Our drummer, Matt Fuller, another dyed-in-the-basement UT fan, and I had already made plans to go see the show; what Richard was offering was a chance to get paid, to drink cheap and publicly shake our asses before checking out the show! From word one, there were lots of ifs: Uncle Tupelo had done a huge KCOU benefit there for their last show, and with that drawing power came a high demand for opening spots; the guys in the band, I understand, had hopes of giving the spot to the Dazzling Killmen, another great local act; and everybody in this business owes lots of folks lots of favors.

So, we had time to think about it. For a band in our position, it was a lot to think about. The initial response was silly. We made a pact with the Lord. We promised to take our admittedly uptight and atheistic song, "Hanging Out with Jesus," off our set list if God would hook us up with the gig. We got superstitious. I think Richard Skubish prayed. And then, more phone calls than I care to recall later, Richard King was on our phone telling me, "Yeah, I think this Uncle Tupelo thing is going to work out." Immediately, I made a "Dogs Have Their Day" poster and we began to plot the show. We had a nightmare drive from Dayton, Ohio - eight hours alone in a car, which means for a band like us eight hours to dream up stupid shit to say and do onstage. But Matt, always the voice of reason and restraint, argued for a straight-up show - and he finally won us over: no hibachi solo, no accordion massage, no stupid hats, no bowling pins, no cheesy autographed giveaways. Just rock & roll.

Now, imagine again my surprise when Uncle Tupelo's Jeff Tweedy turned down the offer to sing along on a song because he would be busy getting into his tux. "Your tux?" "Yeah, come here." He led me to the dressing room and there they were, four of the cheesiest tuxes you will ever see, cheesier even than the Boorays' Swinging Uvula costumes. Jeff smiled and said, "We figured we had to outgoof you guys." I had to tell this story immediately to Tony Margherita, and we both giggled over the fact that goof had gone rock, and rock had gone goof. "We met halfway," Tony said. "That's how it's supposed to work."

I hope that's true, because it's a helluva good stretch to meet Uncle Tupelo halfway anywhere. I do know that watching them do that unmistakable UT thing in goofy tuxes gave me a smile that wore out my jaw. And I also know that when Chris Bess, our accordion player, joined them onstage in overalls and a goofy Chris Bess hat, he looked like he belonged there - almost as appropriate as the late Chicken Truck's Brian Henneman looked when he joined them in a tux top, red cut-off sweatpants and green high-tops to rip out a closing "Cortez the Killer" that left me seasick and thrilled. The only thing to rival it in my recent experience was the after-hours jam with Brian on acoustic, Chris on ukulele, and UT's Jay on banjo, spinning off Hee-Haw style yuk-it-ups and scraps of Led Zep and the Eagles.

Tuneful as that was, Uncle Tupelo's set got the upper hand. If you haven't seen their show lately, then do yourself a favor and go see it. Furthermore - with no offense to Cicero's, which remains indispensable to Uncle Tupelo and to all of us - go see them in a big room. They have translated that Belleville/basement thing into something that could fill any room you put them in. The harmonies are always on now. (Remember those beery Cicero's Jeff Tweedy apologies? A thing of the past.) Those stops and starts are more immaculate, more dynamic than ever, and Jay is getting a wonderful sound out of his guitar. (Actually, at the Blue Note, he was getting a wonderful sound out of our guitarists Kurt Mueller's guitar, having strung his own backwards!)

The two primary virtues of their present act, as I see it, are pacing and passion. Within songs, they are famous for those long pauses, those eye contacts, and those thrash fits that suddenly stop. Between songs, they also pace expertly; for a band one thinks of as being loud and fast, they are presently playing an amazing number of slow songs, to which they have trained their audience to pay attention. What I am calling their passion is close to that spirit of early and mid-period Replacements: They seldom play a song exactly the same twice and - most satisfying for me - they break up their set with off-the-cuff covers. At the Blue Note, they blew away everyone all the way down to Tony by tearing through "Anarchy in the UK": Tony said, with a big grin, "I've never so much as heard them practice that."

And I guess those goofy tuxedos came from a sort of passion, too - a desire to recognize in some form the character of their opening act. In gigdom, you just do not see much of that. In fact, their working with us nearly got more intimate still. In a late-night deal, Mike Heidorn and our rhythm guitarist, Rich Skubish, decided to play pool. The stakes were set at the Uncle Tupelo van vs. an Enormous Richard song about Uncle Tupelo. Then Tony stepped in and upped the stakes to the van vs. the rights to all our material. "I want to see something more tangible," he explained. The prospects of not being able to play our songs because Uncle Tupelo owned them (and, no doubt, never even bothered to play them) was a bit much, and the two contestants were too drunk to get to the game anway.

So, our relationship stopped at one great gig, which was quite enough. When they broke into the Sex Pistols song, I couldn't resist turning to Matt and saying, "We were a part of this show," to which he responded with an enormous, delirious grin.

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