Having not read much about Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy’s first cross-country tour as a solo artist, I assumed he would have at least a nominal band backing him up—drums to keep time, bass to add heft. Even the MTV Unplugged sessions had those.
But no: At 8:31 last night, he walked out onto the Parker Playhouse stage, just him and a variety of acoustic guitars, and played 24 songs from the past, present and future—plenty from Wilco; six from his sensational new album Warm; a few from its equally engaging follow-up Warmer, which releases next month; an Uncle Tupelo classic from a thousand years ago; even teasing snippets of power-pop and art-rock covers.
The experimental musicianship of Tweedy’s bandmates in Wilco has had the effect of competing with Tweedy’s lyrics as much as it buttresses them. But this unadorned presentation, liberated from the strictures of rock ‘n’ roll, placed the focus squarely on the words, enhancing their poetry. I’ll never hear Tweedy’s version of Woody Guthrie’s “Remember the Mountain Bed” again without thinking of this rapturous, mesmerizing rendition. Even Tweedy became too caught up in the song’s beauty, flubbing a line. “I got choked up,” he clarified. “That’s a heavy song.”
But the Guthrie tracks were always rustic, porch-swinging kind of tunes. It’s notable how equally Wilco’s raucous barn-burners, string-assisted ballads and lighter-waving sing-alongs came across. However these songs were presented in the past and on record were immaterial—last night, they were all folk songs, flowing on the same spartan continuum.
It was beautiful, for instance, to barely recognize “A Shot in the Arm” from its first chords, or to appreciate “Misunderstood” without its burbling build-up, and with Tweedy creating a version of its clangorous mid-song breakdown with only his guitar. I found new insights in this stripped-down take on “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” that I’d never heard in more than 15 years of listening to the song, so distracted were my ears by the Pet Sounds-style production values shimmering around Tweedy’s lyrics.
Tweedy was in terrific spirits, sharing with us a lyric change in his new song “Family Ghost” that sent convulsions of laughter rippling through the sold-out audience. When we started to customarily scream out requests, Tweedy compared it to the scene in “Best in Show” when Christopher Guest rattles off the names of every nut he recall. Noticing that a fan was streaming the concert to a friend on FaceTime, he chided, “I’m gonna need an extra ticket purchase for that.” When somebody asked him to remove his jacket, he buttoned it up further instead, citing “reverse psychology.”
Part of the reason for Tweedy’s playfulness last night had to do with us. The audience was by and large respectful and riveted to every word, audibly reacting to the material when appropriate, absorbing it with hushed reverence the rest of the time. Some harmonically inclined fans contributed the “woo-woos” of vocal sunshine missing from this version of “Heavy Metal Drummer,” and, spurred on by Tweedy, we sang the chorus of “Let’s Go Rain” with gusto.
Tweedy described that track to us, cheerfully, as a “less than subtle plea for the sweet relief of death.” Even the apocalyptic songs brought us to a natural high. When the end of the world comes, it’s Tweedy’s voice I’ll want ringing in my ears.