They just can’t help themselves, Wilco. No sooner had they announced that they were taking the majority of 2018 off of the road, then the individual members are gigging and making music.
Nels Cline took his “Lovers” project (one of my favourite recent albums) over to Europe at the end of last year. He’s already got a variety of jazz and avant garde gigs lined up until June. Drummer Glenn Kotche has a percussion gig in Alabama coming up in March and has just worked on the new First Aid Kit LP. Mikael Jorgensen has just played an electronic gig in LA. So whilst after a hectic 2017 they may have been taking some well deserved holidays, it isn’t at the complete expense of music.
Indeed, I’m pretty certain that it is the extra-curricular stuff that serves to keep Wilco as fresh as they always are.
Tweedy has been no slouch either. He released “Together At Last” in 2017, a ten song acoustic retrospective of various elements of his work, with Wilco, solo and also with other projects such as Uncle Tupelo and Loose Fur. He has completed his second stint at writing and producing Mavis Staples album, “If All I Was Was Black”.
In early January, he performed a couple of Wilco numbers in a very different setting for the NPR tenth anniversary celebrations. He played a short set at the 9:30 Club in Washington on 2 December picking up some different solo material from that selected for the solo LP.
What was even more interesting was the two performances of Wilco songs with other artists. Firstly we had “Born Alone” from 2011 “Whole Love” album which took an Attractions type pop number and placed it in front of the Kronos Quartet strings, Adding a classical bent to his songs is something that Elvis Costello isn’t averse to doing and it worked well for Tweedy’s song in the NPR celebrations.
A couple of weeks later, Tweedy joined the Punch Brothers for a moment of transcendent beauty, YFH’s “Poor Places”. Stripping the electronic grit off of the track but then retaining a faithful acoustic arrangements of the coda was sublime, recalling the way that Wilco approached “Bull Black Nova” on their most recent tour.
Tweedy’s short UK tour has been generating positive reviews. He’s clearly relaxed as he walks on stage at a packed Barbican wearing what has become his trademark Open Road Stetson.
An acoustic Tweedy show is faced with a couple of challenges, one of which he acknowledges directly.
Firstly, for all Wilco’s longevity and quality, their back catalogue isn’t blessed with a legacy of hits. This serves to give the set more tension as there are no expectations as to what should get played. Jeff jokes that he is clueless as to what songs people favour so maybe they should just walk out when he plays a person’s favourite, they should walk out afterwards. He’ll then stop playing when the last person leaves the auditorium. The idea goes down a storm.
Secondly, Wilco are a cast of stellar musicians and much of what makes them wonderful are the subtle details that they add to their songs. Tweedy chose a subtle approach to deal with this. The electric ostinato that “Bull Black Nova” features is dealt with by Tweedy playing the song way up the guitar’s neck above the twelfth fret. “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” gets a string bend on the guitar motif to add a previously absent bluesy quality. Tweedy adds a vocal harmony as a coda to “Impossible Germany” to deal with the missing guitar fireworks that feature so regularly when Wilco perform it.
We get a couple of new songs and it is a mark of the affection that Tweedy is held that these register a cheer from the audience. Both are straightforward direct numbers, with the “Noah Song” a commentary on the parlous state of the world and the USA in particular. Tweedy suggests we sail away on a sea of guitars whilst the climate change deniers fiddle whilst Rome burns.
Prior to the last couple of songs, Tweedy hosted an impromptu Q&A. He tells a touching story about the Gibson acoustic guitars which he collects. The one in his hands for the closing “A Shot In The Arm” had been decorated with some painted birds and Jeff explains that these embellishments had been added during the Great Depression. The artists involved had previously worked on toys but as this market dried up in the midst of the Crash, they were turned their talents to guitars.
The encores elicit some sing-alongs and there is clearly much love in the room for Tweedy. The break in Wilco activities for 2018 will hopefully recharge batteries. These hiatuses have done so in the past and anyway, good things come to those that wait.
NB: Cover photo c/o of @AxHoepner