MANHATTAN, NY—John Stirratt was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, and grew up in nearby Mandeville. He performed with The Hilltops, a band that included his twin sister Laurie Stirratt and her husband Cary Hudson. During this time he met and befriended the band Uncle Tupelo and joined that group in 1992. After vocalist Jay Farrar left Uncle Tupelo in 1994, the remaining members founded Wilco. Stirratt circa 1998 wanted to work on some songs that he knew would not become Wilco songs. He met producer/engineer/multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone in a New Orleans recording studio, they worked on the songs together and by 2000, formed The Autumn Defense. In 2001, the duo recorded its debut album, The Green Hour. Sansone joined Wilco in 2004, giving Stirratt and Sansone more opportunities to collaborate. The Autumn Defense are now based in Chicago and the group’s fifth album, Fifth, was released on Jan. 28, 2014.
At the Highline Ballroom tonight, The Autumn Defense showed that it stands apart from Wilco. John Stirratt and Pat Sansone are somewhat invisible in Wilco behind bandleader Jeff Tweedy, but they were very much in the forefront in the five-member Autumn Defense tonight. While Wilco is largely driven by Jeff Tweedy’s alt country vision, The Autumn Defense focused on a 1960s/1970s adult contemporary sound.
Stirratt and Sansone took turns singing lead on the songs, and the tracks all featured multiple-part harmonies. Here is the first area where the band needed work: While the recording studio is designed to correct any damage, the live stage does not offer these privileges. Tonight, neither individual sang well, and together they were worse. Fans may have overlooked the less-than-stellar vocals in favor of the warm and gentle pop grooves of the songs. The tracks occasionally incorporated brief folk and country licks, but largely they were delivered as soft, sweet and sunny tunes with obligatory catchy choruses. Yet, for all their signature imprint, the songs lacked bite. They became much like the bland music one hears in the background while visiting retail stores. This may appeal to shoppers, but in rock clubs, an audience often expects a livelier and more innovative performance.
For more on The Autumn Defense, go to theautumndefense.com.