By Michael Lello
Some artists’ music is inextricably connected to a location. The Beatles and Liverpool. Bruce Springsteen and New Jersey. Willie Nelson and Texas.
Jonathan Wilson’s sound has been distinctly Californian, even before he moved to Los Angeles from his native North Carolina in 2005. Having produced albums for some heavy hitters in their own right, he was quickly hailed as the leader of the Laurel Canyon revival after his solo debut, 2011’s “Gentle Spirit.” Last year’s sophomore effort, “Fanfare,” has gained critical plaudits as well, including being tagged the most important album of the year by Dangerous Minds and making the Los Angeles Times year-end top 10.
Wilson, who will bring his hushed psychedelia to Underground Arts in Philadelphia on Saturday, Feb 16, has found some friends in high places, with David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers and Wilco’s Pat Sansone all turning in guest appearances on “Fanfare.” He’s also opened for Petty, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Wilco and Tame Impala, among others.
“Well, it’s definitely surreal, but it’s like one of those things,” Wilson said in a recent phone interview, discussing his heroes-turned-colleagues. “In the case of Jackson, he’s turned out to be a great friend. We’re the same kind of people. We happen to love guitars and amps, so we have a passion for the same things.”
Another Californian of a different stripe, Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, has also become a collaborator. We told Wilson he came to our attention via his stunning rendition of “Mission In The Rain” on last year’s “Move Me Brightly” DVD, recorded at TRI Studios.
“Right on. Cool, thank you,” he said. “I had done some gigs with [Dead bassist Phil Lesh] in the past. But some of the guys from TRI saw me opening for Petty in Dublin and said ‘Let’s get this guy for Jerry’s birthday.’ With Bob we did a duo acoustic thing, which was a gas, so it’s been extremely educational to dive into that orbit.”
Did that include a lot of homework getting up to to speed on the Dead’s massive catalog of tunes?
“Like for sure. These guys will spring tunes on you before the show, and you’ll have an iPhone up to your ear before the shows, learning the changes.”
While there is a psychedelic tinge to Wilson’s music, and some improvisational aspects to he and his band’s live shows, he is not a full-on jam act.
“There is kind of a blend of what you’d call some jamming elements and sort of a melodic, sophisticated and curated aesthetic you might not see at your typical jam band show,” said Wilson, who said that growing up, “I was listening to what you would expect someone who was raised by kids of the ’60s. Sort of the hits of the day, The Beatles and Stones, and I did listen to a lot of Eagles and sort of California bands.”
Wilson has been an in-demand producer, having helmed the recordings of Dawes’ “North Hills” and “Nothing Is Wrong” albums, Father John Misty’s acclaimed debut “Fear Fun” (he’s working on FJM’s second record now) and British folk legend Roy Harper’s latest, “Man and Myth.” He said there is a different sort of satisfaction he gets from producing another artist’s music as opposed to working on his own material.
“For sure. It’s good to experiment and get to dabble in other styles that might not fit with my self arc or career sort of trajectory sonically. I find that really fulfilling.
“I just finished Conor Oberst’s album, and that was incredible that I just get to try things and experiment with drum sounds and synthesizers and African-based guitar, things I wouldn’t do with my own stuff.”
Jonathan Wilson will perform Saturday, Feb. 15 at Underground Arts (12000 Callowhill St., Philadelphia)