jay bennett, 1963-2009

jay bennett

jay bennett.

It was easy to lose track of Jay Bennett after he parted ways with Wilco during the making of the seminal Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album in 2001. He issued a steady stream of indie solo albums after that, most of which are now out of print. A personal favorite is a 2004 record of starkly defined confessionals titled Bigger Than Blue. I found it in a Cincinnati record stories last winter marked down to $4. It was as if nobody else wanted it.

But it was with Wilco that Bennett made his mark. At the band’s two initial Lexington shows – a 1996 Kentucky Theatre concert that it decidedly stole from the headlining Jayhawks – and a crammed, hopelessly sold out Lynagh’s date the following winter – Bennett was the utility man, coloring in founder Jeff Tweedy’s songs with guitar and keyboard orchestration that was, alternately sullen, sweet and disturbing.

Bennett died in his sleep Sunday morning at the age of 45. Details of his death are still unfolding. But his relationship with the Wilco world was strained and sad during his final days. Earlier this month, he sued Tweedy for back royalties from his Wilco days. In late April, in a detailed post on his myspace page, he wrote that he was facing hip replacement surgery without insurance.

That Tweedy and Bennett were not on the best of terms isn’t a huge surprise. The 2002 Wilco film I Am Trying to Break Your Heart chronicled the deterioration of their professional relationship. This weekend, Wilco’s website simply has the message “Jay Bennett R.I.P.” sitting without fanfare in the upper right hand corner of its home page.

For those unfamiliar with Bennett’s music but are looking for an introduction, we offer these three recommendations.

+ Give a listen to Bennett’s newest album, Whatever Happened I Apologize. It is available for a free, legal download here.

+ Give a listen to Wilco’s 1996 album Being There, a two disc recording that began the transformation of the band from an alt-country troupe to an inventive pop enterprise. It remains the best of Wilco’s early recordings.

+ Take at look at this YouTube video of Tweedy and Bennett in happier days performing a Being There tune, Misunderstood, which still figures prominently in the band’s concerts today. That’s Bennett with Tweedy at the beginning. He plays keyboards during the performance.

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