Putting a music group together is a fickle and challenging process, often filled with drama and angst, frustration and resignation.
You have to find a band of people who all like the same music, have similar levels of musical competency, have similar levels of availability for practice and gigs, have all the gear they need, among them have access to a practice space, and have similar levels of commitment to the project.
Given those parameters, and taking into account my own personal experience of putting together and being in rock & roll bands, it’s pretty easy to understand the mystique of the band origin story: those quasi-magical tales of when, for instance, Lennon & McCartney or Jagger & Richards met; of how The Beatles and The Who really weren’t The Beatles or The Who until they played their first gigs with Ringo Starr and Keith Moon, respectively.
Likewise, band breakup stories are also the stuff of legends, from irreconcilable artistic differences to sibling rivalries, or interfering spouses to the death of a member.
In the irreconcilable artistic differences category, one of my favorite breakup stories concerns a band I loved a lot in the early 1990s: Uncle Tupelo.
Uncle Tupelo slowly formed in the mid-1980s, going through several different lineups and band names, eventually solidifying as the trio of Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy, and Mike Heidorn. Farrar and Tweedy were the two songwriters and singers, together they concocted an infectious blend of American roots music and punk rock sensibility, and yet they only produced four albums before their acrimonious end in 1994.
Just as The Beatles could never have indefinitely provided it’s four members with enough individual artistic outlet to keep them all happy, Farrar and Tweedy both had the songwriting and musicianship talent to be frontmen of their own bands, and they both gradually grew frustrated with only getting to write and sing lead vocals for half of the songs they recorded and performed.
Proof came when both of them formed new bands, Farrar’s Son Volt and Tweedy’s Wilco, and recorded their first albums within a year of Uncle Tupelo’s breakup.
I was so sad about the breakup, that when I got the first Son Volt and Wilco albums, I recorded both of them onto a single cassette tape, one song at a time, alternating songs from the two albums, and it very nearly ended up sounding like an Uncle Tupelo record.
However, Wilco would soon break away from a predominant American roots music orientation, and by their third album, Summerteeth, Wilco and Son Volt were so entirely different that a mixed tape attempt to keep Uncle Tupelo together would have been an incongruent mess.
Well, thanks to YouTube user songhunter1966, for this week’s Video Fridays installment we have a real treat, Uncle Tupelo’s very last performance, an entire May 1994 show featuring their final lineup, a lineup that tells the future: within months of their breakup, Tweedy would form Wilco with the drummer, Ken Coomer, who had replaced Mike Heidorn two years ealier, and bass player, John Stirrat; and when Farrar founded Son Volt he called on Mike Heidorn to be his drummer.
Watching this concert, even just a little bit, makes me wish Uncle Tupelo would do some reunion shows, and I realize that band reunions are a third category of legendary music history tales, but that will have to be another blog post, some other time.
Enjoy, and Happy Weekend, everyone!