Wilco guitarist Nels Cline’s new show brings Philly music history to the stage

To prepare, he was led on a grand tour of iconic Philadelphia sound.

nelscline
Courtesy of Nels Cline

Lovers (for Philadelphia)

Nels Cline
Union Transfer
1026 Spring Garden St.
Saturday, June 2


With the title Lovers, the latest solo album from Wilco guitarist and co-composer Nels Cline seemed like it was made for Philly. Sure enough, Cline and his 18-piece ensemble are in town this weekend to premiere a one-night performance entirely inspired by Philadelphia.

The album itself is full of cinematic, mood music grooves that eschew Cline’s usual jarring noise bolts and off-kilter atmospheres. “Lovers is a very personal, basically autobiographical project,” offered Philly’s Mark Christman. “One that maps [Cline’s] thoughts and experiences about love, sexuality and romance.”

Christman would know. Artistic director and curator of Ars Nova Workshop, he’s also the man who toured Cline around so the guitarist could create the one-night show “Lovers (for Philadelphia),” set to premiere June 2 at Union Transfer.

Created specifically for this city, “Lovers (for Philadelphia)” found Cline and Christman traipsing to archaeological digs to the homes of local icons like Paul Motian and Sun Ra. Cline viewed Jimmy Smith’s organ and hung out in the vaults of the Sigma Sound Studio’s archives. He explored the Free Library and the Curtis Institute’s orchestral holdings. The history lessons will inform interpretations of material composed and/or performed by McCoy Tyner, Benny Golson, Eddie Lang, Sol Kaplan, Ethel Waters, The Delfonics and other Philly music icons.

“’Lovers (for Philadelphia)’ was my idea, inspired by a long-standing interest in doing something collaborative with Nels,” Christman explained.

“Ars Nova has been presenting Nels Cline since the beginning of our organization, almost 18 years ago. And since Ars Nova has an interest in all things Philly, and in promoting an understanding of Philly’s incredible contributions to jazz, and to music in general, I just began imagining what could be possible.”

Considering that the first Lovers was a mix of originals and emotional cover songs for both recording and the stage, Cline had to be confident in furthering such a powerful concept. The informational excursions Ars Nova Workshop readied for Cline helped provide that boost.

“These visits were all surprises,” said Cline, “Mark Christman meticulously planned my visits down to the last minute and intentionally told me almost nothing until I arrived about what each visit had in store for me… very carefully shepherding me around, trying to enrich my mind and sensibilities.”

The pair visited not only music-related places, but also the Wagner Free Science Museum, the Marcel Duchamp rooms at the Art Museum and other artistically resonant locales.

“Being in the Sun Ra house was very mind-blowing since I have wondered about it since the 1970s,” Cline said. “The vibe emanating from those walls… well, it’s heavy.”

Ask Cline how songs connected to McCoy Tyner, Benny Golson, Paul Motian and the like fit his initial Lovers ideal, and the question does not warrant a simple response.

“It all hinges on my personal aesthetics, my polymath sensibility, and my ideas about updating and personalizing the orchestrated ballads recording marked ‘romantic’ or ‘mood’ music,” Cline explained.

“What I’m doing is taking this Philly challenge and using my personal aesthetics and preferences to create something respectful and potentially moving while endeavoring to keep my concept or vision intact.”

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