Admittedly, I spent the majority of 2011 ignoring most releases in the ever-expansive “rock” genre. Before I get pelted with virtual cries of blasphemy, allow me to elucidate on the aforementioned statement. In all sincerity, there were few albums that excited me more than the ones coming from the hip-hop and electronic communities, and I therefore felt compelled to give those albums and artists the attention they deserved. Unfortunately, my unwavering focus on beats on top of beats left my journey down 2011’s musical landscape with a few blind spots. With a debut that is disarmingly captivating at worst, Jonathan Wilson put an end to that.
Perhaps my ears needed much deserved rest or relieve from the thunderous bass that emanated from every corner of my small apartment for most of last year. Or perhaps the arrival of winter and the hibernation period it induces for a New Yorker like myself, required more soothing sounds. Either way, the 13 gorgeous tracks that make up Wilson’s Gentle Spirit have become some of my favorite folk songs.
As such, I was more than eager to catch the North Carolinian on his tour through the States. I was lucky enough to attend two of his New York performances last weekend (Friday’s Mercury Lounge and Saturday’s Rock Shop gigs), and let me tell you, the man did not disappoint. He may be a psychedelic folk singer/songwriter, but Wilson’s live show is nothing short of electric. Backed by a full band, Wilson roared through a two hour plus set on Friday night. Almost every song he played (the majority of which were from Gentle Spirit), included extended, lip-biting worthy guitar solos that left his longer than average songs on 10-minute markers. “Natural Rhapsody,” in particular, showcased Wilson’s highly cultivated guitar skills, as he and the band delved into at least five minutes of unadulterated jamming.
The crowd’s reception was especially telling of what makes Wilson’s live show so great. There were moments of complete stillness, (“Gentle Spirit” and “In the Valley of the Silver moon” come to mind), followed by bouts of swaying, (“Can We Really Party Today?”), and joyful dancing (“Desert Raven” and “The Way I Feel”). I even spotted someone head banging, lightly, but doing it all the same. And that’s the thing about Wilson. On record, his music is evocative of the softer Laurel Canyon sound, melancholic melodies layered in strings and organs, beautiful and quiet. In a live setting, the tracks unfold in a more aggressive manner. That is to say, they have a bite to them that isn’t overtly obvious on the album proper. It’s like Neil Young, The Dead, Radiohead and Pink Floyd came together, had a 30-something year old musician and named him Jonathan Wilson. And he is absolutely great. Most definitely worth a listen, or twenty.
Video from the Mercury Lounge performance: