The fact that Nels Cline ended up joining Wilco has got to give you hope. Some things do work out. Some things can be good. Just thank god no one ever told Cline that guitar-based rock is "dead."
First appearing on a recorded format in 1978 (three tracks on Vinny Golia's Openhearted LP), it wasn't until the early '90s that Cline began to blow things up. The Nels Cline Trio started to make small but noteworthy waves beginning in 1990, with the release of their Silencer CD. By the mid '90s, Cline's name had begun to be preceded by "Have you heard of...." And then in 1997, after teaming up with the still-wonderful Carla Bozulich and an assortment of Los Angeles-based musicians, Cline and the Geraldine Fibbers set the world on fire with Butch.
Yeah, but not really—not yet. Still, you could hear what Cline had in store for us. Dancing with Bozulich's brilliantly fucked-up vocals, Cline and his guitar tossed out something that approximated jazz (circa '72) battling it out with rock (circa '68), with a little Thurston Moore magic thrown in like it was nothing.
Like he had been doing it his whole life. Well, he had. It's just that no one really noticed. You see, that's the funny thing about Cline. He's performed with the likes of Bozulich, Moore, Bill Frisell, Charlie Haden, Scott Amendola, Mike Watt, Lydia Lunch, and Wayne Kramer. He's appeared on over 140 different recordings. His name is like a 40-point Scrabble word if ever dropped in the middle of an "interesting musical conversation."
But up until two and a half years ago, Cline was still just that: a name-drop. Oh, he'd torn it up all right. But Cline still wasn't... known.
It was just three years ago that you could walk into St. Johns Pub in North Portland, pay $7, sit down, and watch Cline back the Scott Amendola Band. Granted, it was a killer two-hour set. Cline easily punched a hole through the Bitches Brew-wall. But you were still left with the feeling: How come no one really knows whom this guy is? And then he did it. Nels Cline joined Wilco.
Granted, enough has been written about that band in the past four years that Greg Kot could put out another shitty book. But what is now becoming inescapably apparent is that Wilco can be broken up into "pre-Nels Cline" and "post-Nels Cline" phases. (Name me another guitarist out there who could affect a band and their sound so much in this woeful/wonderful modern-era of rock music.)
Case in point: Cline's solo on "Hell Is Chrome." Appearing on A Ghost is Born, and originally recorded before he joined the band, Cline transcends the song live. (Pick up Kicking Television for proof.) Setting himself up by playing a muted, standard R&B downbeat chord in the verses, and then rolling, fuzzed-out notes in the bridge, it is everything that was promised when Hendrix laid down the solo to "All Along the Watchtower." Thirty-two gorgeous, wilting seconds long, Cline soars in as soon as the third verse is completed. Delay, tube-amp reverb, and a tone to die for collide as Cline pulls out a series of thick, high-end notes that perfectly echo Jeff Tweedy's fragile, confessional lyrics in the verses.
It's why guitars were invented. And the world's a little better off because Nels Cline picked one up.