Defending the Right to Rock:

The most interesting thing Pat Sansone of The Autumn Defense had to say wasn’t about his band’s recent album release, their unique sound that is comparable to Cat Stevens or their current tour, which kicked off on Feb. 8th. The most interesting thing that he had to say was the one thing he didn’t think I was listening to.

“What’s the gas situation?” Sansone asked to a van full of musicians. “Do we have enough to get there? Because I am out of cash. Should we stop? I think we should keep going for a little while.”

As I talked with Sansone, he was traveling in a “super ’70s conversion van” down a stretch of highway in Arizona, packed into a vehicle with four other band members. In a few hours, The Autumn Defense would be playing in Tucson – their sixth show in the last seven days. And, by the time The Autumn Defense pulls their cramped van into Champaign for a Feb. 27th show at The Canopy Club, they will have played 16 shows in a 20-day span.

Yet, even with such a frantic schedule, it is hard to image The Autumn Defense fretting over what’s left in their tour van’s gas tank. After all, the two biggest forces behind the music of The Autumn Defense – Sansone and multi-instrumentalist John Stirratt – are also members of Wilco, the Chicago-based band that has been referred to as “America’s Radiohead” on more than one occasion.

Because of Wilco’s considerable reputation, many fans of the band assume that The Autumn Defense is a Wilco side project. However, that is not the case – Sansone, in particular, was a member of The Autumn Defense before he ever played with Wilco.

The band released its first album, The Green Hour, in 2001. Two years later, The Autumn Defense released Circles. The layoff between the band’s second and third album has been substantial; it’s been over three years since the group released a full-length album, and the long break was not by design.

“We are going to make it a priority to close the gap between this record and the next one,” Sansone said.

The new self-titled album has been received positively by critics and fans alike. Now, the band will spend two hectic months crisscrossing the U.S. in support of the record.

The precise sound of The Autumn Defense is hard to pinpoint. Many fans, however, compare their music to ’70s soft rock artists like Neil Young or Cat Stevens. Sansone seems humbled when compared to such historic artists, but he stressed that the band’s style was not contrived.

“I don’t think we set out to sound that way,” he said. “I understand the comparisons and don’t mind them. But we didn’t say, ‘Hey, lets make a band that sounds like old acoustic soft rock,’ our sound grew organically.”

For a band preparing to play a busy two-month tour, the mindset is one of conflict and contrast. On one hand, the band members are excited and intrigued; on the other, the touring life is one that can be harsh and repetitive.

“It’s both fun and it’s tiring,” said Sansone. “There’s definitely a positive side to just getting caught up in the momentum. It’s the other stuff that will wear you out – loading up your equipment, being in a different place every day.”

Touring is tough, and with a new Wilco album due out in mid-May, things are not going to settle down soon for Stirratt and Sansone. But, the group’s camaraderie helps make the rough moments more tolerable.

Naturally, Sansone said he is excited about each gig. Regardless, though, a few shows tend to stand out from the others.

For the Autumn Defense, Champaign is a special place to play in particular. With so many students hailing from Chicago (the home of Wilco) or nearby suburbs, it is easy to understand why the band feels at home in central Illinois.

“There is a noticeable Champaign-Chicago connection,” Sansone said. “You can definitely see the history that goes into it. Champaign is a great town.”

The Autumn Defense is becoming familiar with the University of Illinois campus. Late last October, they appeared at Foellinger Auditorium, opening for Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. This time the band will be joined by the jazzy Greg Spiro Trio, who will be playing a free show after The Autumn Defense set.

And while the band won’t admit it, The Autumn Defense’s presence in Champaign this February will be at least partly defined by Tweedy’s absence. At the core of their performance, a question waits to be answered: can the guys from Wilco shed the “guys from Wilco” label and firmly create their own identity?

After hearing their latest album, it is clear that the Autumn Defense is worthy of an emergence from the shadow of Wilco. And, three weeks into a draining tour, The Autumn Defense will attempt to do just that at the Canopy Club.

Come see The Autumn Defense with The Singleman Affair and Ferraby Lionheart next Tuesday, Feb. 27th at the Canopy Club. Doors open at 7 p.m. for a special early show at 7:30 p.m., and tickets are $10 in advance.

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