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Published: Thursday, 1/27/2011

Jayhawks take long road back to fresh start

CHICAGO -- Patience and perseverance are the great lost virtues of cultural experience, but sometimes they pay off. The Jayhawks know from experience.

The Minneapolis band is back, with its first studio album in eight years ready to be released, and a renewed appreciation of the long road taken. The quintet will perform two concerts this week at the Vic Theatre focusing on two of their finest albums, "Hollywood Town Hall" (1992) and "Tomorrow the Green Grass" (1995), which have been re-released with bonus tracks.

"We did a lot of waiting in the Jayhawks," says singer-guitarist Gary Louris, a St. John's Jesuit alumnus. "Seven albums in 20 years; compared to what we recorded it's not much."

"We were in high volume mode, thinking it was 1966 when you could put out two albums in a year," Louris' songwriting partner, Mark Olson, says, looking back on the band's first decade. "I found out it's not like that anymore. These people [record companies] want an album every two or three years. The pace is dictated by the powers that be that had money and studios. But I've always had a gonzo aspect about me. I get a head of steam, I'm ready to drive all night out to the desert, dig a trench, write songs all day and night. I enjoy living at high speed."

Louris and Olson produced a treasure trove of recordings in the early to mid-'90s, a bunch of which ended up on "Hollywood Town Hall" and "Tomorrow the Green Grass" albums. Those albums sound as good as ever, but the 18 tracks appended to the "Green Grass" reissue tell a deeper story. These represent a portion of "The Mystery Demos" that Louris and Olson recorded during that era, a window into what might have been. Brimming with the duo's lustrous harmonies and love of melody, these demos affirm the Jayhawks' place as one of the great American bands of that era -- even if they weren't widely recognized at the time. Louris and Olson can only shrug that some of their best work, as captured on the "Mystery Demos," remained unreleased until now.

One of the reasons for that oversight is that the band's story inevitably gets tangled with their modest commercial success. "Green Grass" in particular included a raft of potential hits, including "Blue," a soaring anthem that melded the band's love of American roots music with hints of orchestral pop and a melody for the ages. The song never caught on with commercial radio programmers, and subsequent media attention focused on the band's massive debt to its label at the time, Def American (later American).

"We weren't different than a lot of other bands in that respect," Olson says. "I noticed a lot of money around in those days, lots of money spent on bands to make videos that nobody sees today, and bands that nobody cares about today. But we were building a core audience and have continued to tour to that audience ever since. All the gold is not in the hit, but in the building of an audience that really digs you. Any money spent toward our end gave us a chance to play and find that audience."

The fallout from "Green Grass" discouraged Olson and he walked away from the band. Louris continued on with the remaining members -- keyboardist Karen Grotberg, bassist Marc Pearlman and, subsequently, drummer Tim O'Reagan -- for a few more years, before dissolving the Jayhawks in 2004.

But Olson and Louris later reconciled, began touring and eventually recording together, and brought the Jayhawks back in 2009. The band has finished a new album, due out in the spring on the Rounder label.

"I can't think of another band that made their best record after reuniting, but I think we just did," Louris says of the as-yet-untitled release.

Olson isn't surprised by his bandmate's bravado. "I never understood the dropoff with age syndrome," he says. "If you are playing constantly and working on your singing and songwriting and guitar-playing, you should improve. You have life experiences that you can define in your lyrics. I believe in progress and I believe that as musicians and singers and songwriters we've gotten better."

Louris says the time away gave him a new perspective on the band and what it could do.

"I honestly can say that I didn't foresee this when the Jayhawks broke up," the guitarist says. "Mark would probably tell you that when he quit, he should've just taken a break. And the same with me: I should have taken a break instead of disbanding the group. But when you're so deep into it, everything starts to be a grind, and you tend to lose appreciation for what you have."

Part of the appreciation stems from knowing what not to do. For Olson, it was touring as an opening act at amphitheaters for bands such as Tom Petty and the Black Crowes.

"I still have a slight fear of the huge carnival aspect of modern touring," he says with a laugh. "Seven trucks, four tour buses -- something about that got to me. I don't think of music that way. We don't have to worry about that now, because we did the hard work. I was in the band during the warm-up years. I love to play, but I didn't love that 30-minute opening slot. And now here I am, I get to play all I want."



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