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Jeff Tweedy, Union Chapel, Islington, June 30th 2010

July 8, 2010

Jeff Tweedy is not a well-loved character in our household. In fact, it’s fair to say that Astral loathes him. I don’t warm to him – and there’s more of his band Wilco‘s output that I dislike rather than like – but my feelings are less hostile than hers. What’s more, I saw a lot of the band up-close when I went over to the USA in December 2008 to see five Neil Young shows on the East Coast.

Wilco were supporting Neil (as were the fine Californian band Everest, who have just released a good new album), so I saw them night after night. What impressed me about them is also what makes me not love them – they are tight, eminently versatile, impeccably rehearsed and extremely self-assured on stage. And that goes against my ingrained English Midlands psyche – anything this confident and slick is not quite on the level. We may have loved superstars like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, but listen to some of their live shows and you can hear just how raw and rough around the the edges they were. That made them more ‘real’, man…

The other sticking-point with Tweedy is the history of the wonderful 90s band Uncle Tupelo and its other main architect, Jay Farrar, who went on to form Son Volt. The nasty break-up of Uncle Tupelo has been well-documented elsewhere and in these situations no-one’s all right or all wrong, but I’ve always felt that Farrar resolved the conflict better by effectively starting all over again. And I’ll still maintain that the first three Son Volt albums, Trace, Straightaways and Wide Swing Tremolo are better in their own right and as successors to Uncle Tupelo’s legacy than Wilco’s first three. Finally, and without wanting to kick up a hornet’s nest, there was something about the life and untimely demise of former Wilco multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett that leaves an unhappy taste in the mouth.

I hope you’ve made it through this long waffle, as it paints the background for what I think and feel about Jeff Tweedy. He’s clearly one of the most talented writers, performers and arrangers of modern ‘rock’, but there’s always a barrier between me and my really liking him. However, the rare chance to see him play solo is one I jumped at. One of my biggest peeves with Wilco is their penchant for burying a song under mountains of instrumental variations, changes of pace, needless ‘bridges’ and so on. Rarely in recent years can you hear the song shine through, and that’s something that just has to happen if you’re going to stand up on stage solo, with just a guitar and a microphone.

Jeff, of course, has six guitars rather than one waiting for him on stage, but The Suit and I, after reserving our fourth-row seats, headed to the Union Chapel’s outside and upstairs bar (left) to indulge in some of their delicious homemade food. I’ve raved about it before, but it really is that good (I had the sweet pepper quiche, new potatoes and green salad). After a couple more pints of 6X, The Suit bought two Cokes for us to pour two JD miniatures into so that we weren’t blatantly breaking the church’s rule on not drinking in there. Hey, if there’s a God, I don’t think he’s going to bring up that little indiscretion at the Crack of Doom. If he does, I’ll know I don’t have too much to worry about.

About the support act – a Geordie stand-up comedian – I’ll simply say ‘wtf?’ Eventually Jeff came on stage to huge applause, fiddled with his microphone, launched into Someone Else’s Song from 1996’s Being There – and promptly fluffed the second line. Not bad for a control freak, but he did seem nervous. He apologised, smiling, and started again. A couple of days ago, my friend the Ragged Norseman suggested that this wasn’t uncommon and might be a deliberate ploy by Jeff to loosen up both him and the audience. Interesting.

Anyway, after Spiders (Kidsmoke) from 2004’s A Ghost Is Born, Jeff invited old British songwriter Bill Fay to join him onstage for a delicate rendition of Fay’s Be Not So Fearful. Not earth-shattering, but it did relax Jeff and he started to exchange a few words between songs, mentioning that his missus and son had been soliciting requests from the audience before the show. It was clear, however, that he intended to ignore nearly all of these requests. He did mention that an ‘asshole’ called David had asked for ‘anything by Dylan’ and proceeded to play Simple Twist Of Fate, followed aptly by Wilco number Bob Dylan’s 49th Beard. Later, he played Uncle Tupelo’s New Madrid, saying that a girl had asked for it and he responded, ‘I’ve done about ten albums since then. Don’t you like the new stuff?’ This knockabout faux-grumpy attitude went down well with the audience.

The rest of the show (apart from a surprising Handsome Family cover, So Much Wine) was a thorough trawl through the Wilco back catalogue, from I’m Always In Love, Via Chicago and A Shot In The Arm from 1999’s Summerteeth, to One Wing from last year’s Wilco (The Album). In between, he included three songs from his Woody Guthrie Mermaid Avenue project, Remember The Mountain Bed, Someday Some Morning Sometime and California Stars, and two from his side-project band Loose Fur, Laminated Cat and The Ruling Class.

We also got ‘crowd favourites’ Muzzle Of Bees, Jesus, etc. and Impossible Germany, though the last of these played solo is slightly weird without Nels Cline’s over-the-top guitar solo in the full band version. Overall, though, I enjoyed the evening, as the solo setting really did strip the songs down to their essentials, but the flipside of that is that it’s quite demanding to sustain audience interest with just guitar and voice. Jeff is a good guitarist and a fine singer, though, but I’m surprised that others found him to be ‘relaxed’ and even ‘cheerful’ at this gig. He’s still very standoffish from where I sit.

The final encore was very good – a front -of-stage PA-less rendition of the lovely Acuff-Rose from the Uncle Tupelo days. You’ll guess that I still prefer the older stuff, though Jeff did most of his songs a favour tonight by letting them shine rather than the band.

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