Concert review: Jeff Tweedy at The Orange Peel
Based on the full band that Jeff Tweedy used on his exceptional late-2018 album WARM, odds seemed good that he’d be accompanied by a few other musicians for his Tuesday, March 19, stop at The Orange Peel.
But upon arriving for the sold out gig and seeing merely a mic and a small side table on stage, it, well, dawned on the Wilco-loving audience that, true to the show’s billing, the band’s beloved frontman would truly be performing solo.
First to populate the modest setup was a tardy James Elkington, who humorously apologized for the abbreviated set at multiple intervals. The lanky Englishman worked through a compelling string of songs, several of them purely instrumental and all showcasing his extraordinary fingerpicking skills.
After a reasonable break, the curtains parted and the headliner walked through with his acoustic guitar to deservedly generous applause and launched into “Via Chicago.” As was the case with Elkington, the intimate atmosphere and lack of drums, bass, etc. encouraged the assembled faithful to gather close and, unlike most shows, discouraged paying customers from engaging in loud conversation. The number of smart phone camera flashes throughout the evening, however, was more indicative of the heavy Boomer contingency’s general obliviousness of live music etiquette than outright rudeness.
While Nels Cline gets most of Wilco’s flashy guitar solos, the show served as a welcome reminder of Tweedy’s own talents on the instrument, as well as his off-the-cuff humor, a self-professed means of warding off the ambitious undertaking’s inherent crippling nervousness.
Tweedy’s elite banter first issued forth in the wake of a lyric midway through the set’s third tune, WARM opener “Bombs Above” — “A man so drunk he could hardly stand” — that drew raucous laughter from attendees by the main bar, promptly followed by a baffled look from Tweedy. At the next setlist break, he asked, “What’s so fucking funny?” to which someone claimed that a person had fallen over right when that line was sung. Brushing the comment off, Tweedy later labeled that section as full of “troublemakers” when parsing the unseen (to him) room into the energies he could feel emanating toward the stage.
Bouncing pleasantly between Wilco and solo works with the occasional tune from Uncle Tupelo (“New Madrid”), Mermaid Avenue (“Remember the Mountain Bed”), and even supergroup Golden Smog (“Radio King”) tossed in for variety, Tweedy encouraged singing along when possible/appropriate following the set’s midway pick, “Jesus, Etc.”
Subsequent selections were more in that communal vein, especially WARM’s “Let’s Go Rain,” which he introduced as being about Noah and the Great Flood, drawing cheers and a quick Old Testament retort of, “I didn’t know you were fans.”
The crowd under his spell, Tweedy incorporated an increasing number of uptempo songs, turning from the measured loveliness of “California Stars” to surprise inclusion “Heavy Metal Drummer,” complete with audience falsetto singing of the “ho-oo, hey” parts on the chorus, the sound of which earned smiles from both sides of the stage.
Rolling forward with such standouts as “Passenger Side” and “Late Greats,” plus a four-song encore with fan favorites “A Shot in the Arm” and “Misunderstood” sandwiched in the middle, Tweedy also dropped news of another album, WARMER, out in April, and performed two appealing tracks from it, but didn’t disclose it being a Record Store Day release, available exclusively on vinyl.
Though word of the unexpected collection, its quasi-lazy title, and April Fool’s month release made its existence feel like a possible joke itself, the reality of the lighthearted yet soulful experience in which it was delivered was one of artistic beauty and sophisticated truths rarely encountered in contemporary music.
Those fortunate enough to witness it were given a substantial gift by one of the humblest best to ever get on stage and perform, and you can trust they’ll be the first to pony up the next time he comes to town.
(Photo by Nichole Esmon)