LIVE: Tweedy @ the Calvin Theatre, 9/27/14
Review by Ross Marvin
Sure, there’s a certain gimmick to forming a band with your kid. This was true of Shirley Patridge and Keith. It was true of Frank Zappa and Moon Unit. It is true of Jeff and Spencer Tweedy. No coincidence, maybe, that critics of Tweedy and Wilco have consistently labeled the Chicago band as the poster boys of Dad Rock — a mysteriously less cool, grayer shade of hipster rock that comes with a side of perplexing lyrical poetry, experimental bleeps, microbrews and vegan food trucks.
While anyone who has attended the quasi-annual Solid Sound Festival that Wilco hosted from 2010 to 2013 at MASS MoCA (and coming again in June, 2015) sees the truth in my depiction above, fans who scratch a little deeper know how shallow it is to think such a description adequately sums up Jeff Tweedy’s now immense and incontrovertibly impressive songwriting catalog.
Last Saturday night at Northampton’s Calvin Theatre, the band was “Tweedy” in name only. This was a Jeff Tweedy show, one that captured the broad swath of his career from alt-country founder in Uncle Tupelo, to the many stages of Wilco (which go something like Americana, lush-pop, experimental pop, indie supergroup), to his strong new material, in which his 18-year-old son plays the role of musical foil and unquestioning acolyte.
This isn’t to say that Spencer Tweedy isn’t talented, or that creating a father/son rock band hasn’t shaped the wholly pleasurable, sad, and satisfyingly domestic album that Sukierae is. In these still-new performances Spencer’s locked-in beats made me feel like I was getting behind closed doors to see the fruition of what once started out as a jam session in Wilco’s Chicago loft after Spencer got out of school. What probably began as “Hey Dad, see what you can play over this” (commence drumming), becomes the George Harrison-esque, trance-inducing “Diamond Light,” which took the place of Wilco krautrocker “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” as the slow-burning experimental groove of the night.
While the band started off slow on the dour “Nobody Dies Anymore,” father and son hit their stride on the third selection of the evening, the propulsive “Flowering,” where each of Jeff’s lines was punctuated by the exclamation point drum fills of his son. Spencer also lent background vocals to standout performances of “High As Hello” and a lovely cover of late Chicago songwriter Diane Izzo’s “Love Like a Wire.” Just like bluegrass brother harmonies, the musical chemistry and knowing glances shared by the Tweedy boys made me seriously think about teaching my kid the drums some day and building a basement studio. It looks fun. No doubt about it.
Other highlights included both of Tweedy’s official video releases, the insanely catchy “Summer Noon” and “Low Key.” The former features quintessential Tweedy wordplay like “she spoke to me and provoked my band” and “Like a lioness or a coyote / A pink beating heart in the balcony.” Critics have nailed Jeff on this kind of sound poetry before, but it’s not far removed from some of the best indie mood music (think Pavement or R.E.M.’s Murmer). The Tweedy boys also plugged their Nick Offerman-directed video for “Low Key” one of the more plain-spoken and upbeat tracks from the new album. The video is a YouTube must-see with loads of special guests (as he does at Solid Sound, quirky comedian and former PC commercial star John Hodgman steals the show).
Accompanied by Jim Elkington (guitar), Darin Gray (bass), and Liam Cunningham (keys), the Tweedy boys played 13 songs from their new double album, Sukierae, released on DBpM Records last week. While the band held its own, I kept thinking about how much better these songs would sound when (and if) Wilco get a crack at them. When guitarist-extraordinaire Nels Cline joined the band for its “Sky Blue Sky” album in 2007, Tweedy’s songwriting took an obvious shift, leaving space for Cline’s ringing bell of a guitar. While Elkington was workmanlike-efficient, it was hard not to imagine Cline ripping out the solos instead. But, the new album is about song-craft — not showmanship. And the new repertoire is rife with melody and introspection. In this age of the Internet and subsequent Internet pre-orders, many of the fans in the packed Calvin Theatre sang along to songs that had only been alive to the public for five days. To keep listeners on their toes, Tweedy played “Why Why Why” a new song, not included on the album, which might have been a good choice. But Tweedy couldn’t get one over on the audience — a guy in the front row had heard the song the night before.
It was this crowd that nearly derailed the concert. While Tweedy is always a charismatic front-man with Wilco, quick with a joke or witticism, fans who have seen his solo show before know that he has a tendency to banter a bit more than usual. At the NoHo show, Tweedy made a joke about some do-gooder who tried to tell him he couldn’t idle his tour bus (essentially the mobile home of the band). He made a joke during his career-spanning solo set to the effect that no one stands in the way of his air conditioning, not even the environment. Some other do-gooder in the audience started yelling at Tweedy after the next song because she was “offended” and Tweedy nearly lost it, telling the woman that he was joking and to “sit the fuck down.” She promptly left, and Tweedy was noticeably shaken, apologizing about the confrontation for the rest of the show and further pontificating on the merits of understanding both irony and having a sense of humor. It almost felt like a strange teachable moment, and that the show would stop so that Tweedy could explain himself to his teenage son. Between the audience’s frustrating cat calls for requests and horrible off-beat clapping that forced a false start or two, Tweedy threatened to cut the night short, temporarily shutting the crowd up. Americans, I am quite sure, have forgotten how to shift gears from full-band rock to quiet listening room, and it’s the reason I still turn to my headphones more than I buy a ticket. Still, I’m glad Tweedy managed the crowd into silence, because his solo set was the greatest reminder of his prowess. From the stripped down “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” to the September 11 prophetic “Jesus, Etc,” the Woody Guthrie stylings of “Please Tell My Brother” to the off-center freak folk “Laminated Cat,” Tweedy ultimately gave the crowd what it came for.
In the encore, the full band came back for a new tune, a pair of tunes from the Tweedy-produced Mavis Staples album, and the usual set-closer: “California Stars.” If nothing else, ending each night with “California Stars” suggests that Jeff Tweedy isn’t as self-centered as he sometimes seems, but a folksinger in the tradition of others. To think of Jeff Tweedy as merely a “Dad Rocker” is to simplify his complex character. He is at the least, a left-of-the-dial dad, brought up on the Replacements, cheap, Midwestern watery six-packs, and Harry Smith’s anthology. At most, he is a first-rate American artist whose name should be uttered in the same breath as Guthrie, Dylan, and Springsteen.
Brooklyn-based trio Hospitality opened the show with 30 minutes of angular, slightly sleepy pop, which never really cooked. The band, currently signed to Merge Records, never rose above their moniker, playing intelligent, but uninspired tunes that were merely a welcoming appetizer to Tweedy’s main dish.
TWEEDY SET LIST
Nobody Dies Anymore
High as Hello
Why Why Why
Love Like a Wire (Diane Izzo)
Wait for Love
Fake Fur Coat
Diamond Light Pt. 1
(Jeff Tweedy solo)
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
Please Tell My Brother
I’m The Man Who Loves You
Please Don’t Let Me Be So Understood
Only The Lord Knows
You’re Not Alone
Give Back the Key to Your Heart