"In the great, big city, an oasis of quiet." This was how Pat Sansone, one-half of The Autumn Defense, described their performance at The Mercury Lounge in New York City. And The Autumn Defense were "quiet", and not just with their laid back, acoustic-y early-seventies soft rock, but, more importantly, in attitude. In a city with 8.2 million egos, it was refreshing to find a place of unpretentiousness, whatever the time of year.
The Autumn Defense are Sansone and John Stirratt, both better known for their work as multi-instrumentalist and bassist (respectively) with Jeff Tweedy in his alt-country Chicago superstars, Wilco. Sansone was actually a member of The Autumn Defense before joining Wilco in 2005 (he is appears on their recent live album, Kicking Television, and the soon-to-be-released studio production, Sky Blue Sky). Along with Tweedy, Stirratt is the only founding member of Wilco still with the group, and having an outlet like this is probably a big reason why. But since their 2001 debut record, The Green Hour, The Autumn Defense has grown beyond being just ‘Wilco's bassist's side project', and on March 19th, 2007, the band was playing offense.
The majority of the songs played that night were from this year's self-titled release, including the opening track on both the album and the night, the melodic and rhythmic "Canyon Arrow". While they never touched upon any Green Hour material, The Autumn Defense still had a strong sampling from 2003's Circles. Most of that record's best tracks were laid down that night (except for the lamentably missed "Iowa City Adieu"), including the night's second number, "The Sun In California," a flowing piece akin to somber Beach Boys, but written from the perspective of two Midwestern lads. The Autumn Defense stayed in 2003 with "Bluebirds Fall", off of their split EP of that year with the countrypolitan Hem, and hit a real high note when they returned to The Autumn Defense for the catchy "Estate Remains".
Unfortunately, this was followed by the night's weakest moment, their self-titled record's weakest track, "City Bells". A song that veers somewhere between smooth jazz and easy listening, the audience quickly lost interest, and began talking amongst themselves. It took a few more songs before the crowd was really brought back into show, with the perfect tones of Circles' "Written In the Snow", and the surprisingly strong audience reaction to keyboardist Mike Cruz taking a step to the front, when he and guitarist Sansone swapped places. A New Yorker with likely many friends in attendance, Cruz's popularity became the night's in-joke, with Sansone saying, "Wow, I didn't realize there was going to be that big of a reaction," before jokingly adding, "Cause then I wouldn't have said it."
From there, The Autumn Defense launched into a second half with very few missteps, and a lot of hit steps. "Spend Your Life" live that night was better than on The Autumn Defense, Circles' "Tuesday Morning" really was, as Sansone put it, "kind of a New York number" (especially on that Monday night), and nobody needed an explanation for the wonderful simplicity of Defense's "Simple Explanation". The band ended the night strong, with particularly melodic Defense numbers like the ironic "I Knew It All Along" and the moving "This Will Fall Away", before returning from a very abbreviated encore break ("Pretty lame walk-off – more of a slink-off," Sansone) to fulfill the oft-shouted request from some fan in the back, Circles' "The World (Will Soon Turn Our Way)", and an unrecognizable cover the band just wanted the crowd to "dig."
It was the younger Pat Sansone, and not the more Wilco-wise John Stirratt, who largely served as frontman at The Mercury Lounge (QRO venue review), with a banter that was winning, without breaking The Autumn Defense's laid-back flow. The crowd, not as female-heavy as one might expect, could be forgiven from thinking they were back in the Nixon Administration, with the band's soft vibe (plus Sansone's folksy throwback vest, and his and drummer Greg Wiz's shaggy do's). But there was a reason that this sound had been popular back then, and that The Autumn Defense can so successfully bring it back now: the listeners get an oasis of quiet and calm in not just a city, but a world that never sleeps.