All words: Jesse Young.
To get a real sense of Jeff Tweedy’s one-night-stand at U Street’s Lincoln Theater last night, you really only need to know how it ended: having wrapped up a pair of raucous, full-band encores that elicited a delirious standing ovation, Tweedy stepped to the lip of the stage to shut the crowd up before launching into a stunning version of the Uncle Tupelo gem “Acuff Rose” – without amplification. In complete and utter silence, Tweedy sang the song’s lilting melody to a rapt and riveted room, with only his voice and guitar alone to carry the tune. I’ve seen a ton of shows in my day, and I’ve never seen anyone command a room like that.
The first thing you realize when you walk into a Jeff Tweedy solo show is that his audience looks just like him – a sea of nerdy white dudes in their late-30’s and early-40’s with the slightest whiff of ironic, literary detachment in their bearing. It was a crowd full of horn-rimmed glasses and tasteful facial hair – exactly the kind of folks you’d expect to see populating a sit-down theater show featuring an eminence grise of American indie-roots rock. The moment he shuffled onstage at a few minutes past 9:00 – hair artfully disheveled, shrouded in the half-light of the stage’s wings – the crowd roared its approval in a reception usually reserved for icons of Springsteen-ian stature. I felt suddenly and totally at one with the sea of squealing rock nerds.
The Lincoln Theater is on the smaller side of the venues Tweedy often favors in his day job as the lead singer songwriter for Wilco – old, elegant rooms with warm acoustics that nicely complement Tweedy’s particular brand of surrealist-confessional songcraft. Tweedy spent the entire show in the center of an unadorned black-curtained stage, ringed by a semi-circle of four acoustic guitars (including a twelve-string which he never touched throughout the night, much to my dismay). It was a suitably understated setting for an equally understated set that explored all corners of Wilco’s ever-growing catalogue – that is, before the curtain came up for a rousing set of full-band encores with the evening’s opening act The Autumn Defense (the side project of Wilco’s own Pat Sansone and John Stirratt).
The artful economy of Tweedy’s guitar playing is often lost in the full-band cacophony of Wilco, but it was on full and glorious display last night. Tweedy is a workmanlike musician, un-showy and spare in his fretwork, cleverly twisting and reworking the melodies and chord structures of Wilco warhorses and B-sides alike. “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” – normally an 11-minute noise-rock barnburner – was transformed into a hushed riddle of a song here, almost all traces of caterwauling dissonance erased. “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” – as close to a disaffected alt-rock anthem as Wilco has ever produced – seemed somehow even lusher with its ringing piano lines translated into finger-picked guitar phrases.
Tweedy is also a deeply funny dude. He had a killer one-liner for every dickhead heckler and a self-deprecating aside for every flubbed lyric and botched guitar chord. “We only know a few songs, OK? Shut up.” he told the guy screaming out for the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter.” Before playing “ELT,” he explained, “This was the No. 1 requested song on our website, which means as usual, only a few of you will enjoy it.” Afterwards, he admitted that he’d played the song in a key a half-step higher than normal entirely by accident, totally flubbing the chorus’ opening chord in the process. Such admissions of sloppiness might have been grating were it not for Tweedy’s totally unpretentious sense of humor about himself – every screw-up only served to endear him closer to the utterly-charmed crowd.
The violently-enthusiastic reception for the two full-band encores – “Passenger Side” and “California Stars” – brought home the fact that, for all Wilco’s genre-defying musical expeditions of the last decade, their audience still remains deeply attached to their earliest alt-country work. As much as clanging pop-art deconstructionism endeared them to the critical establishment, Tweedy and his rotating cast of bandmates in Wilco captured a purity and elegance in their early work that I’m clearly not alone in loving (and missing).
I’d never seen Jeff do his solo thing before, so the show was generally a kick-ass revelation (as much as a cerebral acoustic show can kick ass, really). I tend to recoil from the cult-of-personality critical following that inscrutable musicians like Tweedy tend to accrue, but anyone at last night’s show would be hard-pressed to challenge the sheer breadth of his songwriting talent.
Rock nerds unite, man.