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Nels Cline: Guitar Anti-Hero

Nels Cline

Nels Cline leans forward, fingers flickering across his Jerry Jones 12-string electric guitar. He’s onstage at the Ed Sullivan Theater, home of Late Show With David Letterman, where cameras are rolling for a performance by Wilco, this decade’s quintessential American alternative-rock band. Lanky but dapper in a high-buttoned black suit, he looks the part of a Grand Ole Opry flatpicker, or maybe an undertaker. To his left are Jeff Tweedy, the group’s lead vocalist, and Leslie Feist, a featured guest. “However close we get sometimes,” they’re singing amicably, “it’s like we never met.”

The song is “You and I,” a three-minute soft-rock confection that earned Wilco its first No. 1 spot on the Triple-A radio chart. And Cline is aptly serving its needs, tracing chord arpeggios with a hint of twang. His contribution, subtle but substantial, has a lot to do with the mellow grace of the song. Over a closing tag, he fashions an obbligato behind the two singers, with a retro-trippy backmasking effect.

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