Tweedy, Live At The Neptune Theatre, 03.12.15
I remember the exact date that my history with Wilco started. It was November 3, 1997 at the Granada Theatre in Lawrence, KS. My friend (and main concert promoter in town) Jacki Becker called me up that afternoon and asked if I would mind helping work security for a Wilco concert that evening. Jacki called me somewhat often to guard doors at bigger shows, and paid me in free concerts of some of my favorite bands. In my barely-21-year-old brain at the time, Wilco was a band for post-collegiate bros with backwards baseball caps, whose taste for live music had dwindled alongside their taste for beer (I seem to remember a lot of Miller Lite hovering around that scene). I hemmed and hawed and finally agreed, mainly because I had nothing else to do that night and all of my friends were busy. If nothing else, the story about the godawful band I saw the night before would be worth retelling the next day.
My part in this crack squad of security volunteers was usually to make sure people didn't sneak backstage or climb onstage. Simple, boring, easy enough to watch the show as it was happening. This time, however, I was thrust into a different role. My job for the evening? Stand in the front row, center, directly in front of Jeff Tweedy. Keep those rowdy, husky, Miller Lite sluggin' bros off the stage. Most importantly, Jeff was to stage-dive during one song in the set, and I was instructed to leap onto the stage and make sure his guitar cable didn't get yanked on or tangled up in the mass of adoring hands. (I'm still convinced Jacki put me there to get me to fall in love with Wilco.)
I watched Jeff and the Being There-era iteration of Wilco come out onto the stage and likely grumbled under my breath about being stuck watching this alt-country band play a 75 minute set full of sleepers. Not five minutes after the first chords of "Misunderstood" were strummed, I was slackjawed (likely with a mouthful of crow) and unable to deny the perfect blend of melody and atmospherics that Wilco were perfecting on Being There. Later in the set, Tweedy crowdsurfed, I kept his guitar cable from getting stolen, and I patted his butt back onto the stage post-solo. I remember the show wrapping up with a cover of Led Zeppelin's "The Immigrant Song" complete with a deli tray full of processed meats being tossed into the crowd. I was sold.
Fast forward nearly 20 years later, and I'm standing in a city (Seattle) that I first visited in order to go see Wilco play at Bumbershoot. What happened on that trip is a whole 'nother story, but that trip and the experiences therein helped cement my eventual migration to the Pacific Northwest, and cemeted Wilco into my personal favorites hall of fame. (I've lost track, but I believe this is the 13th time I've seen a Tweedy project in the past 18 years.)
I felt a bit of that same weariness that I felt before my first Wilco show before tonight's show, worrying that this iteration of Jeff Tweedy's musical career might be a letdown. I've listened to Sukierae quite a few times, but haven't ever felt incredibly connected to the project as a whole. Some of the songs ("Summer Noon", "Low Key" and the angularities of "Diamond Light") have an urgency and focused vision to them, but my early impressions of the rest of the material felt like meandering Wilco sketches. Also, frankly, I worried that the whole "Tweedy Family Band" aspect of it might make it awkward or goofy. After re-reading some of my previous reviews, I'm realizing that this trepidation is a bit of a trend when it comes to my approach to Tweedy/Wilco appearances; somehow, I just don't believe they can sustain the magic.
Thankfully, Tweedy showed up and reminded me how awful that crow tasted 18 years ago.
All photography by Marie Langhout-Franklin.
While I've still yet to really connect with Sukierae on wax, it's a much more lively beast in the live setting. Sure, there are still a lot of mellow waltz tempos on the record (Tweedy joked after "Desert Bell" about a giant crowd rush the previous night in Montana, hoping for a new trend in excitement that he dubbed "waltzwave"), but the breeziness of those waltzes filled the entirety of the Neptune with the sort of subdued introspection that is Tweedy's current canon. I paid more attention to the actual poetry of the lyrics than I had before, and realized the sheer amount of words Tweedy is jamming into his songs these days. Keeping those songs as simple, swaying waltzes helps to make that sort of verbosity a little less overwhelming, and lobs up the ball for some of the more massive dynamic songs to knock it out of the park.
"Diamond Light" came off as a beautiful run-on sentence and the strongest moment of the first part of the set, playing with those same tension and relief atmospheres that made me fall in love with Wilco in the first place. Most of the evening found Tweedy strapped with acoustic guitars, but the triple electric lead bits (Tweedy going behind the bridge of his Jazzmaster while guitarists Jim Elkington and Liam Cunningham built a wall of buzzing, jagged sound that danced around complimentary and contrasting notes) sounded like heaven to me. Watching Spencer Tweedy and busy bassist Darin Grey lock into a flawless, staccato groove to end the song was absolutely mesmerizing; Spencer's eyes closed as he zoned out and locked in with Grey's bass, and I noticed Jeff Tweedy watching, studying his son's focus and beaming proudly.
While many parents have the tendency to fawn over their children's accomplishments to disgusting extremes, Jeff Tweedy treated son Spencer as an equal bandmate, occasionally joking about their age difference as a self-effacing "old man" joke without ever falling into "babbling proud parent" mode. It's got to be difficult to bring your child in such a substantial career, and it's got to be equally tough to be an 18 year old who gets to tour the country with the stipulation that your dad be around all the time. The Tweedys handled it gracefully, with Spencer quietly and capably handling his duties and graciously waving every time he exited the stage.
You never know if an artist is going to put a hard-stop on references to their previous works with a unique new project. Thankfully, Tweedy doesn't have that sort of line drawn in the sand, and let the band take a break mid-set to do solo acoustic versions of 9 Wilco classics and then brought Spencer out for a stripped down version of "Heavy Metal Drummer". While acoustic sets are enjoyable, it can be hard to separate your mind's desire to hear all of the layers of the original composition of a song. Tweedy's song choice, for the most part, did a spectacular job of highlighting the bones of the songs themselves and presented them in such a confident manner that the stripped layers weren't missed. "One Wing", in particular, was a stunningly simple display of guitar and voice; I may actually prefer the acoustic version to the one on record. "Misunderstood", the first Wilco song I ever heard, still retained its restless, uncertain anthemic qualities, and the hushed crowd quietly chanting "nothing, nothing, nothing!" at the end of the song was enough to give me goosebumps. Tweedy also gave Andrew Bird a run for his money with an impressive whistling solo at the end of "Hummingbird".
As a frontman, Jeff Tweedy has evolved past the days of silently loafing through his sets (likely due to his former addiction to pain killers) to a confident, vibrant frontman with a sly smile and a spring in his step. He lectured the audience on German/Dutch history, the origins of his Kel Kroyden guitar, his hopes for the new "waltzwave" movement, and gave sincere "this guy is seriously my personal hero" props to hometown Seattle boy Scott McCaughey (who opened the show with The Minus 5). Considering a few of the late 90's Wilco shows I saw where Tweedy looked hollowed-out and joyless, I'm thankful to see this new "high on life" guy fronting the band. His joy toward these new songs (and to sharing the stage with his son) is infectious; that joy along with the well-balanced peppering of classic Tweedyisms and upbeat, focused pop into the set full of slow-burning strummers made Sukierae come to life for me. More than anything, seeing this iteration of Tweedy made me appreciate Jeff Tweedy for continuing to understand the value of challenging an audience to get them to earn a reward, and for managing to start a band with his son that doesn't seem like a novelty.
- Summer Noon
- Honey Combed
- Desert Bell
- World Away
- New Moon
- Fake Fur Coat
- Diamond Light
- Wait For Love
- High As Hello
- Love Like A Wire (Diane Izzo cover)
- Low Key
- Nobody Dies Anymore
- -Jeff Tweedy Solo-
- I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
- New Madrid
- One Wing
- Be Not So Fearful (Bill Fay cover)
- Born Alone
- One By One
- Jesus, Etc.
- -Return of Spencer-
- Heavy Metal Drummer
- -Return of Full Band-
- Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood
- Only The Lord Knows