I don't make it to Chicago as often as I used to, but certain engagements require little thought on my part. Take, for instance, a pair of Jeff Tweedy benefit shows at the Vic. As always, I packed accordingly.
Jeff Tweedy, Vic Theatre, March 12-13, 2010: During the course of these shows, I started to wonder how long it's been since I've seen a "normal" Jeff Tweedy gig--er, apart from that one-off in Phoenix just last December, which was kind of a party for his sister anyway. But aside from that date, if it does indeed qualify, most of Jeff's solo concerts over the last several years have been benefits or charity shows. Furthermore, Jeff hasn't booked an extended tour in my part of the world (as if that's ever stopped me) since at least 2006.
Anyway, Jeff's spectacularly arch tone, from start to finish, inspired this train of thought. If you've seen a Wilco show, you know Jeff's humor often comes across as tongue-in-cheek--when he chooses to speak to the audience. Lately, though, his statements have leaned toward an earnest appreciation for the cities the band has visited and the crowds that have attended.
But if history is any indication, these benefits bring out another side. As I recall, Jeff got in some barbs at last year's gigs, and that tendency showed no signs of abating at this year's outing.
The format pretty much guarantees this trend. The drill, for review: The first 30 people in line get to request songs, many of which are downright dares. Jeff, in turn, does his best to fulfill their wishes and, in the execution, score some laughs at our expense.
I think I steered clear of most of the digs, partly because I go for the (relative) softballs. Hey, I've admitted to my teacher's pet tendencies, but the truth is I actually want to hear these titles. This year, that meant "Either Way" and "Solitaire," neither of which show up often on Wilco's setlists, I'd like to remind everyone. Besides, I figured more than one person in line would make up for my pandering--and they did!
Though I escaped the sharpest comments, my requests were immediately juxtaposed with Jeff's remark about how all the songs would be "bad" (or was it "not good"?), and Jeff didn't pass up the chance to point out the lack of electric guitar in his solo rendition of "Either Way." Still, this was nothing compared to the retorts a lot of other requesters--including my own friends--received. At one point, he called us "creeps," but more specifically, Paul couldn't catch a break for asking for an outtake from the first album ("Promising"), and there may have been a hint of indignation in Jeff's spoken-word performance of "Single Ladies" for Brianne.
As a fan, I can't help but love this format, and the masses came up with some good ones. There are far too many to name, but I loved hearing titles resurrected from old Lounge Ax recordings ("A Fool Such As I" and "Shaking Sugar"), current covers ("Broken Arrow" and "Fake Plastic Trees"), and all-around favorites ("Laminated Cat," "The Long Cut," to name two). Throw in a bunch of B-sides ("The Good Part") and even more Neil Young ("The Losing End"), and you'll start to get an idea of what we heard over two nights. Oh sure, there were some forgotten lyrics along the way ("Secret of the Sea"), but Woody Guthrie tends to have that effect.
Among all these songs, a couple jumped out at me--I mean, beyond the enjoyment factor. Though Jeff played down "Screen Door" as one of his earliest compositions--and drew attention to his improper use of a preposition--he also slightly slowed the pace and imparted the tune with a mature and maybe even resigned tone. In the process, this typically guileless work took on a worldly feel I'd never detected before.
The other was "Spiders." I'm not sure how many people reading this blog remember the controversy over this song's journey from its striking acoustic form to its eventual Krautrock-inspired studio rendition, which has become a mainstay of Wilco's sets. I'm going to go out on a limb and declare that anyone who heard "Spiders" in its early stages--almost 10 years ago, if memory serves me right--will always have a soft spot for that arrangement. Then again, maybe I'm just being self-serving because during Jeff's performance, I had a hard time recalling the electric version, despite having heard it about a million times. This is no slight on the band, however--it's more a testament to the song's good bones.
Amid this pleasing turn, a few bona fide surprises popped up; notably, Jeff claimed he had no stories to tell, so he opened up a Q&A session instead. Unfortunately, he called on one yahoo who asked about Jay Bennett, but a couple of other developments helped make up for that lapse.
The first was a question about Jeff's favorite song to play; naturally, he chose whatever he's working on, which turned out to be a piece he wrote for Mavis Staples. I deserve to have my English degree revoked for unimaginatively calling it soulful, but trust me, you could easily imagine how she'd shake up and raise its already heartfelt foundation.
The second came from a kid in the balcony, who offered $5 (to Jeff, not the charity) to play a G chord on Jeff's guitar. His wish was granted, and under Jeff's tutelage, he followed up with a handful of complementary notes. I'm not sure Jeremy (the kid in question) paid up in full, but his unadulterated enthusiasm inspired the audience's outright amity. I was hoping he'd crowd-surf back to his seat, but as it happened, I'm pretty sure he was floating across the entire expanse anyway.
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