Tuesday, November 15, 2005

A Shot in the Arm: Jeff Tweedy, solo and acoustic, at Messiah College, 11.12.05

In a recent Billboard interview, Jeff Tweedy, founder and frontman of Wilco, said he loves occasionally going out on solo tours simply for the freedom. During a typical Wilco show, he can’t pull any old song out of his head because he has the rest of the band to think of. On stage by himself, Tweedy can play anything he wants.
Maybe it’s time to dump the band.
Okay, of course that’s an exaggeration. But solo Tweedy is a refreshing change from the new-millennium Wilco, the band now tinged with too much Sonic Youth-esque “experimentation.” The group’s last two albums make you work to find the melodies and great songs are hidden behind layers and layers of ambient noise and sound effects.
I’ve come to love Wilco’s now-legendary “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” from 2002, the record that cost the band its original record deal because they refused to tone it down in search of a radio-friendly hit. As chronicled in the 2003 documentary “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” Wilco stuck to its guns and made the album it wanted, even if it took an extra year for the set to find record store shelves. With that kind of stick-it-to-the-man backstory, “Foxtrot” was overhyped by critics, the majority of whom were crawling over top of one another to be the first to call the album a masterpiece.
On first listen, I simply didn’t hear it. Nor did I get it the second time through, or even the third. No, it probably took six months or more before I finally “got” it. My friend and I now use the album as a label for other similar albums. Yeah, that new PJ Harvey album is a “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” situation, we say. And I still skip a few songs with regularity.
Things only got more inscrutable with Wilco’s much-anticipated follow-up, 2004’s “A Ghost is Born” (I refuse to use the pretentious lowercase style on the cover). There are some good songs on there, but they’re either surrounded or buried by even more masturbatory noodling than the previous set. “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” is a fabulous riff hidden amongst 10 minutes of filler—and that’s not even the longest track on the album! “Less Than You Think” clocks in at an untenable 15 minutes, which concludes with 12 minutes of atonal beeps, squawks, and squeals.
“Ghost” is actually the culmination of the musical journey Tweedy’s been on for more than a decade, dating back to his days with the glorious alt-country band Uncle Tupelo (they basically invented the genre back in the late ’80s, paving the way for Ryan Adams, the Jayhawks, and many more before calling it quits in the early ’90s). It’s my feeling Tweedy has always considered himself more than just a lowly rock and roll singer—he’s an artiste who refuses to be pegged into something as awfully mundane as “alt-country.” You can hear it written all over the Uncle Tupelo songs; just listen to the differences between songs like “Graveyard Shift”—fronted by Tupelo co-founder Jay Farrar—and Tweedy’s “Gun.” On the surface, they sound basically the same, but “Gun” (a great song, mind you) has some choppy, melody-killing moments that are precursors of what Wilco would become. Farrar, on the other hand, went on to embrace his genre in new band Son Volt; Tweedy would spend the next decade moving as far away from alt-country as possible. Ironically, neither may quite be as good apart as they were together (Son Volt certainly isn’t as good as Wilco). You could call them the McCartney (Farrar) and Lennon (Tweedy) of alt-country.
Trouble is, Tweedy’s been moving away from what he does best. Never was that more apparent than Saturday night during his solo set at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania.
I’m thinking specifically of one song that illustrates this whole point: “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” the opening track from “Foxtrot.” On the album, this song is so choppy and overwhelmed by bells and whistles, it’s almost a non-starter and it’s to blame for keeping me from getting into the album back when I first heard it. “Break Your Heart” sets the tone for the entire set—and it’s off-putting.
Played live with no band getting in the way, however, this is one great song. The stripped-down acoustic version allows Tweedy to let the melody roll along, highlighting a stirring lyric about admitting how stubborn, stupid, and irrationally hurtful we can be, even in the face of true love. It was one of my favorite songs of the night.
But I’m getting ahead of myself—and the setlist.
Everything about this setup is perfect for the type of vibe Tweedy is trying to create: He walks on stage with no fanfare whatsoever (other than a roaring crowd), steps into a spotlight that never wavers for the entire main set (no light show, just a bare bulb for the first 1:15), and walks up to a single microphone on a stage that allows the huddled masses to get within arm’s reach of their low-key troubadour.
Tweedy’s battle with drug addiction has been well publicized and, thankfully, he seems to have finally kicked all of his bad habits (he mentioned this several times throughout the night), including cigarettes. It’s all done him good, because it’s apparent right from opener “Sunken Treasure” that his voice is as good or better than it’s ever been. His gravelly baritone still breaks and cracks in all the right spots (sometimes flaws can be the biggest strengths), but when he wants to, he can now nail high parts with crystal clarity. For anyone who’s seen the version of “Treasure” on the documentary DVD, the version he’s now capable of pulling off is so much better, there’s really no comparison.
Tweedy was quite chatty throughout the show, and some of it may be attributed to nervousness at playing his second Christian campus in less than a week. After “(Was I) In Your Dreams,” he began what would be a rather lengthy discussion of religion that stretched across the next two songs. I never had any illusions that Tweedy is a Christian, and that notion was confirmed Saturday night; he did say he was flattered to be asked to play the campus (he was the headliner for a two-day conference on Christians engaging popular culture), and he “admires” Jesus Christ and “respects” anyone of faith. It’s typical pap I’ve heard from countless other people who are too gutless to make a choice, but at least he did appear genuinely reverent. The whole thing was rather bumbling, though; there’s a reason why musicians write songs instead of speeches—I haven’t known many that are particularly eloquent orators (Bono’s about the best of the bunch, and even he’s not that great).
Tweedy then played a new song (believed to be on the next Loose Fur album (a side project)) that has Christ giving up drug use; yeah, I don’t get it, but Tweedy said it’s how he relates to Jesus, and it really wasn’t disrespectful in spirit. After that, though, he continued to discuss religion for a minute (“I feel like I need a pulpit,” he quipped) before going into “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” which he said he felt he “needed” to play to balance out the previous song.
Once the elephant in the corner was finally out of the way, Tweedy seemed to settle down and really get into a groove.
The Woodie Guthrie cover “Remember the Mountain Bed” and “Please Tell My Brother” were the emotional high points of the next block of songs, the former now possibly one of my favorite Tweedy songs of all time after hearing Saturday’s performance.
The mellow intensity led into a string of favorites to close out the main set, starting with “Heavy Metal Drummer,” another fantastic reworking of a “Foxtrot” song (complete with closing line, “Playing Uncle Tupelo songs/Beautiful and stoned” that drew rousing shouts) leading into “Break Your Heart.” After making good on his promise from a few songs earlier with Uncle Tupelo’s “Black Eye” and the quiet “Someone Else’s Song,” Tweedy closed the set by offering up two rollicking old stand-bys: “ELT” and “Someday Soon” (with plenty of crowd participation on both).
For the encores on this tour, Tweedy has been bringing Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche (a percussionist extraordinaire who’s also been opening for Tweedy) out on stage to close the shows in rock-out fashion. Saturday was no exception, starting the encore with “Not for the Season,” a great Loose Fur song. Another Tupelo favorite, “New Madrid,” appeared in the second slot, followed by another trio of personal favorite songs: “A Shot in the Arm,” “War on War,” and possibly my No. 1 song from “Foxtrot,” “I’m the Man Who Loves You.”
The show seemed to be over with “The Late Greats” (also the closing track from “Ghost”), especially when the house lights began to flicker on. But this truly was one of the best crowds I’ve been in, aside from the requisite idiots yelling out requests and other stupid comments during between-song breaks. Overall, though, most everyone was quiet and respectful, and Tweedy seemed to realize that, too, because he came back out for one more solo song, “Acuff-Rose,” to close a 1:45 set and a great night in the hills of Pennsylvania.
For all the negativity I’ve felt about Wilco—and Tweedy, in particular—over the past couple years, Saturday night went a long way to redeeming his recent work and keeping me hooked for the future. He could have come out and tried some sort of awful avant garde solo performance art—I actually half-suspected this would be the case, honestly. Instead, I was on the receiving end of some old-school honesty.
Again, this is why I go to concerts, folks: Nothing beats live music. With this great show floating around my head, I’ve already gone back and listened to (most of) “A Ghost is Born” more in the past few days than I had in the 18 months since it was released.
Rock and roll may not be my savior, but it continues to change my life—in big and small ways.

Jeff Tweedy
Messiah College
Grantham, Pa.

Main Set:
Sunken Treasure
Airline To Heaven
(Was I) In Your Dreams
New song
Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down
Blue Eyed Soul
Bob Dylan’s 49th Beard
Remember the Mountain Bed
Sugar Baby
Lost Love
Please Tell My Brothers
Heavy Metal Drummer
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
Black Eye
Someone Else’s Song
Someday Soon

First Encore (with Glenn Kotche on drums):
Not for the Season
New Madrid
A Shot in the Arm
War on War
I’m the Man Who Loves You
The Late Greats

Second Encore (solo):

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