Jeff Tweedy hired a comedian to open his solo/acoustic show at the Uptown Theater on Tuesday night. Turns out he needed neither an opener nor a comedian.
For 100 minutes, the founder and frontman for the band Wilco (now 20 years old), delivered a one-man show that provided plenty of music, entertainment and comedy for the 1,500 fans in the theater.
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Standing alone and strumming a guitar before the lone microphone on stage, Tweedy led the crowd through nearly two dozen songs. Most were drawn from his Wilco catalog, but a few came from other projects. He opened with “Solitaire,” a track from the “Wilco” album, then “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” from the fabled album “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.”
Tweedy is famous (or infamous) for not suffering fools or rowdy, inconsiderate fans gladly, and after finishing his third song, “Remember the Mountain Bed,” he addressed someone up front who was causing some kind of commotion.
It started a feud that was mostly good-natured and that prompted some humorous verbal jousting.
“I don’t wanna piss you off,” Tweedy shot back after a request was shouted-out, “but I don’t wanna make you happy, either.”
Later, when the name of the late Jay Bennett, a former bandmate, was invoked, Tweedy responded: “He was my friend. Was he your friend? ... He would have hated you.”
All that salty banter contributed to a show that was as informal as the headliner’s demeanor. Tweedy shows up for work like he’s on the late-night shift at a convenience store: in jeans and an untucked shirt. His hair looks like it hasn’t been brushed since yesterday, and his scruffy, laconic voice sounds like it needs a cup of coffee and a shave.
Yet it doesn’t diminish his songs, which, typically, ride bright or melancholic melodies as they reveal confessions or regrets or dispense his otherwise cryptic and evocative lyrics. Even rendered by just the strumming or plucking of an acoustic guitar, his best songs delivered their emotional heft.
He visited two side-projects: Golden Smog and the song “Long Time Ago” and Loose Fur and the song “Chinese Apple.” He also played two tracks by Uncle Tupelo, the band that preceded Wilco: “New Madrid” and then “Acuff-Rose,” his closer.
Tweedy had no high-octane rock band to back him up as he usually does, but he did a good job of keeping his audience engaged, before, during and after songs. Much of that had to do with his candid, deadpan disposition, which ranged from defiance to defeat. Before “One True Vine,” a track from the newest Mavis Staples album, he confessed that his daily affirmation involved looking in the mirror and telling himself how much things were going to suck.
They didn’t however. Rather, his fans gave him warm receptions to nearly every song. They sang back loudly during “New Madrid” and even louder during “California Stars,” a track from the first “Mermaid Avenue” album. And they indulged him when he almost reluctantly choreographed a call-and-response during “Shot in the Arm.”
That was supposed to be his final song, or so it appeared, but he returned for “Acuff Rose.” He sang nearly all of that without the aid of amplification, forcing the crowd to listen hard to hear him. It’s a love song and a tribute to the fabled songwriting publishing house of the 1950s and 1960s: “Everything cuts against the tide when I hear that sound,” he sang.
You could say the same thing about his songs.
Beyond the barbs and wisecracks, that’s what a big crowd came to hear this evening: songs delivered intimately and austerely by the man who wrote them.
Solitaire; I Am Trying to Break Your Heart; Remember the Mountain Bed; Sunken Treasure; Long Time Ago (Golden Smog); Passenger Side; Dawned on Me; Radio Cure; Chinese Apple (Loose Fur); Kamera; One True Vine; Ruling Class; You and I; Bob Dylan’s 49th Beard; Jesus, Etc.; Born Alone; Laminated Cat (aka Not for the Season). Encore: New Madrid (Uncle Tupelo); California Stars; The Thanks I Get; Shot in the Arm; Acuff-Rose (Uncle Tupelo).