The last time Jonathan Wilson played a proper show in New York was just over four years ago. In the interim, the Laurel Canyon maestro has produced albums for artists like Father John Misty and Conor Oberst and spent much of last year lending his voice and guitar to Roger Waters’ colossal ‘Us + Them Tour’, which he will return to when it picks back up next month. Somehow he also found the time to put together a new album of his own, following up 2013’s Fanfare with the indulgent psychedelic mission statement Rare Birds, and with a fresh batch of songs to show off Wilson arrived at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg for a stirring performance.
While a fierce snowstorm raged outside, those who braved it early were treated to the psych-tinged vintage soul stylings of New York upstarts The Shacks, who’s opening set served to spread a bit of warmth around the room and as the crowd gradually filled out, that recognizable electricity began to build up throughout the venue, everyone eagerly awaiting what magic Wilson would summon forth. It didn’t take long to find out, as Wilson and his band took the stage and dove straight into a string of heady new tunes including the heady, grooving “Trafalgar Square” and a dreamy, laidback rendition of “Over the Midnight.”
The set came to be dominated by songs from Rare Birds, a move that highlighted the new sonic areas he explores on the record. In front of a series of top-notch, mind-bending video projections, all of the musicians on stage were put to work; filling out their classic rock band sound with numerous affects, triggers, and strange instruments (and by ‘strange instruments’ I refer to what appeared to be some sort of electronic plank of wood used at one point by his guitarist) to recreate the lavish production of songs like “49 Hairflips” and “Loving You,” the latter of which saw the crew joined by new age musician Laraaji, whose zither playing and sonorous vocalizations led the song into a hypnotic haze.
While they mark an impressive evolution in many ways, these new songs also don’t afford these immensely talented musicians the opportunity to flex their muscles like the looser jams that characterized prior Jonathan Wilson performances, and as such the most viscerally exciting moments came in the form of the few older tunes worked into the set. An early performance of Fanfare’s “Dear Friend” brought the crowd to rapt attention as Wilson let loose a bit of guitar fireworks and the band began to fire on all cylinders. Both “Desert Raven,” with its hazy California groove and blazing guitar harmonies, and the 11-minute set-ending “Valley of the Silver Moon,” thick with grimy Crazy Horse distortion, proved similarly thrilling.
All in all, it’s a treat to have Jonathan Wilson back in action. While his show may have been better served with one or two older tunes in the mix (my pick would be “Angel,” a wickedly funky jam off his 2014 Slide By EP), the chance to see him once again step out of the shadows and into the limelight serves as a reminder of his singular brilliance, both as a performer and creator. During the show, he apologized for the 4-year absence and let slip that he’d be returning much sooner this time, with shows planned for this September. It seems Wilson has experienced a sort of musical rebirth and any chance to watch him bring his vision to the stage should be treated with some amount of reverence.