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Nels Cline Singers’ New Release Built for Road

[SF Gate]

By Andrew Gilbert

When Wilco takes a break, Nels Cline really gets busy.

He’s best known these days for his decade-long tenure as lead guitarist for the rootsy Chicago alt-rock band, but Cline had a long and prolific career as an intrepid musical explorer on the underground Los Angeles music scene years before Wilco came calling. Unfettered by genre conventions, Cline could be found thrashing with Mike Watt, revisiting John Coltrane’s free jazz masterpiece “Ascension” with the Rova Saxophone Quartet or getting raw and twangy with the Geraldine Fibbers.

While Wilco requires his full attention when touring and recording, the band’s hiatus has allowed him to get back to his old footloose ways. After touring Europe with Medeski Martin & Wood, he joined the trio in the studio to record the recently released album “Woodstock Sessions.”

He’s been collaborating with his wife, Yuka Honda, a multi-instrumentalist for Cibo Matto, by contributing to three tracks on the recent album “Hotel Valentine.” He composed a piece for Kronos Quartet that the ensemble premiered at UCLA in March as part of its 40th anniversary season, and he recorded an album of original compositions with former Bay Area guitar prodigy Julian Lage, “playing completely unadulterated electric guitar, no effects or distortion or delay,” Cline says. “Playing next to Julian is daunting and inspiring.”

Cline’s primary vehicle as a solo artist these days is the Nels Cline Singers, the volatile trio with drummer Scott Amendola and bassist Trevor Dunn that performs Friday at the Chapel as part of a tour celebrating the release of “Macroscope,” the band’s fifth album. Exploring a typically disparate array of influences and textures, the album features an expanded cast, including Honda, harpist Zeena Parkins, and percussionists Josh Jones and Cyro Baptista (who’s also touring with the Singers).

“I want a foil,” Cline says. “We’ve been drifting to more percussion for a while, and I play better when there’s more to interact with, taking attention away from the guitar solo aspect. I don’t want to be the main voice all the time. A lot of the writing for the Singers is more about constructing pieces to play together in some manner that showcases our strengths, not always attempts at expressing an astonishing vision. We’re vaudevillians.”

Aside from the addition of Brazilian-born Baptista on the tour, the biggest change is that Cline raises his voice in the formerly instrumental ensemble. “Macroscope” features two beautiful pieces with lithe wordless vocals inspired by the music of Brazilian guitarist/composer Baden Powell, a move that “totally kills the irony of our name,” Cline says.

“I didn’t hear it as a horn part,” he says. “It’s an attempt to warm up the music and create a more intimate, more human, more humble sound.”

If you go
Nels Cline Singers: 9 p.m. Friday. $18. The Chapel, 777 Valencia St., S.F. (415) 551-5157.