The Tweedster

Wikipedia's 'fierce' photo of Jeff Tweedy
Last night I saw one of my greatest musical heroes, Mr. Jeff Tweedy, lead singer of the band Wilco, perform an intimate solo acoustic set at the Lincoln Theatre in DC. Despite waiting a total of something like an hour in the bitter cold for the metro, the show was totally worth it, especially once we got to the heat indoors.

I have a sense of deja vu writing about this show because the first blog post I ever wrote was actually inspired by this very same man. A few winters ago I traveled up to Ann Arbor, Michigan to visit my sister at graduate school and see Mr. Tweedy, among many talented others, perform at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival. I didn't have a blog at that point but the show incited some passion for writing within me and as soon as we returned to my sister's apartment, I took to my computer and hauled out a lengthy piece on the spectacular show I had just seen. Though I knew very little about the blogosphere and I had very little idea of what to expect out of it at that point in time, I created a blog to post that very piece. I was nervous and excited when, just a few short days after posting, I received an email saying that someone had commented on my blog post. When I went to see what my first viewer had to say, however, I was pretty embarrassed. Though he was overall impressed with what I had to say about the show, my reader pointed out a mistake in my writing - I referenced a song that Tweedy covered as belonging to one of his previous bands when in fact it belonged to Iggy Pop. I was mortified at my ignorance and my boldness. How could I have written something with such confidence when I really had no business to making any comments on the subject? That first blog saw a quick end - I don't even remember which platform I used to make it or what the web address was, but I have tried to bury it in my memory.

In reality, such a mistake wasn't reason enough to stop blogging back then. I really owe it mostly to my friend Sarah for re-introducing me to this virtual community. She's pretty much my only close friend with a blog of her own that she regularly updates and it was through my familiarity with her experience that I gained the confidence to start Radiator Tunes up.

So here I am, writing about Mr. Tweedy again. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, I'll give you a quick rundown as I've come to be something of an expert through my years of fandom. An Illinois native, Tweedy started playing in bands and working in record stores most of his life. He formed Uncle Tupelo with his high school friend Jay Farrar and they made waves in the alt-country scene. Tweedy was more behind the scenes in Tupelo, though. Farrar sang lead on a majority of the songs, even those that Tweedy wrote, and Jeff was still gaining the comfort and confidence to become a band leader. When Tupelo split in 1994, Farrar started the band Son Volt and Tweedy quickly formed Wilco. Everyone thought Farrar's effort was destined for greater success but Wilco's first album, AM, proved more popular at first and overtime Son Volt never received the kind of critical praise or devoted following that Tweedy's group would amass. Wilco has now been together for about 15 years, and though there has been a revolving cast of band members over the years, the current line up has been in place for the longest time in Wilco history - it seems like they finally got things right. Jeff has had a history of migraines and addiction initially fueled by a desire to appease such intense headaches. After committing himself to rehab in 2005, many feel that Tweedy's lyrics and musical style has grown less dark. Obviously the band has a large catalogue having been formed over a decade ago, but most of their music falls under the alt-country, indie-rock umbrella. Some of their albums, in particular 2001's slef-released Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, have been deemed a bit more experimental rock, but they've also produced some records that have more mainstream appeal, enough to reach the tops of the Billboard Charts like 2007's Sky Blue Sky.

Wilco puts on a great live show - and their reputation to do so makes it particularly difficult to attain tickets when they go on sale. But I'm also a big fan of Jeff's solo work. Though he hasn't released any albums apart from the band, he does go on tour by himself to perform solo acoustic versions of the songs released by himself and his various bands and side projects, as well as the occasional cover. I first was introduced to Jeff's solo style in a DVD entitled Sunken Treasure: Live in the Pacific Northwest which showcased the best of Jeff's solo performances. Documenting some of his most beloved solo songs as well as his singular humor and well-honed audience rapport, this DVD convinced me that I had to find my way to a solo show, even if it was all the way in Michigan while I'm living in little old Baltimore.

Since I've already regaled you with enough Wilco history, I'll just try to let the music speak for itself from here on out. I don't actually have performances from last night but this is a sampling of some of his best solo work. Last night Jeff actually wasn't on top of his game - he fumbled a few lines of a nine-verse song and chord changes, but that's part of the fun of these shows. They're about sharing in the music with this talented musical architect and the communal experience, rather than the perfection of his songs.

But anyway, here are a few side notes. Wilco has recorded two albums, along with Billy Bragg, entirely composed of Woody Guthrie tunes. The songs are actually a posthumous collaboration effort of sorts. Lyrics of Guthries' were found and set to music by Wilco and Bragg to create a most beautiful and touching album. These songs are some of the best to see Jeff perform on his own. It's also great to see some very overproduced songs stripped down to their core. As I've previously said, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is a very "experimental" album full of untraditional instrumental elements that the record company so staunchly disliked that they refused to release it. The conflict forced Wilco to independently release the album, which received great critical success, and to ultimately find a new label for future releases. Many of the songs on this album have too much instrumentation and a surplus of production elements for a single performer to ever hope to recreate. Jeff, however, dismantles them to just their lyrics and a melody, making for a startlingly beautiful contrast and a whole new sound that allows the music to thrive on its own in an entirely new way. Basically, for any Wilco fan, casual or not, Jeff's solo performances are quite a treat and, for those new to the man and his work, I hope this forum encourages you to explore more from Tweedy and Wilco. Happy listening!

I haven't been fortunate enough to hear this one live but it's a cover of Bob Dylan's "Simple Twist of Fate" from this past summer's Solid Sound Festival at the MassMoCA.

"Spiders (Kidsmoke)" is a ten-minute rock number from Wilco's catalogue - a great song to see live. Jeff tones it down a bit in this performance and the song barely resembles its original form (don't worry, it only clocks in at three minutes), except for when he recreates the up-tempo bridge surprisingly well on his acoustic guitar.

Tweedy produced gospel legend Mavis Staples' most recent release You Are Not Alone. The single from which the album gets it's name was written by Tweedy himself and is a great song whether sung alone by Mavis, Jeff, or both together.

"I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" is the poignant and lyrically acute opening track to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The original version is full of the sound of crashes, dings, bells, and more but with just a guitar and vocals, the song takes on a whole new heartbreaking feel

A beautiful song reminiscing on young love and innocence, "Remember the Mountain Bed" comes from Mermaid Avenue Vol. II, the second of Wilco's collaborative albums composed of previously-unheard Woody Guthrie lyrics. This is quite possibly one of my most favorite songs ever - it's nine verses gracefully encapsulates the feelings of discovering love, the tenderness with which one should reflect on youthful naivete, and the beauty that love weaves into life. I don't feel like my words could possibly do justice to Woody's composition, so please listen to this song if none of the others I've posted here.

1 comment:

  1. Hi There! You commented on my blog a few days ago, and I stopped by to check out your blog. I've enjoyed reading about Balitmore, your cookies and crafts and especially music. I'm an old, boring, mom-dork now, but at one time I loved music and attended lots of concerts and considered myself a wanna be hipster. I haven't been to a concert in years and this spring we are going to see The Avett Brothers in Dallas. I love them! I'm so excited. I hope you had a lovely Christmas! Happy New Year!


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