"I think people are ready to laugh with us more," Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy told SPIN back in August. He was right. Saturday night at a rare solo show in New York City, Tweedy proved to be one very funny guy.
Which is sort of surprising. You wouldn't think the tormented rocker who has sang about his life-long battle with anxiety and depression (and whose chronic migraine headaches led him to painkiller addiction) has much to laugh about. But now, 25 years into his career, he does.
During his 18-song set at the Bowery Ballroom, Tweedy engaged in gut-busting, often self-deprecating banter with the crowd, who sold out the 500-person venue in minutes. "Uh, sorry guys, I didn't have time to get a haircut," joked Tweedy, disheveled with a scraggly beard and mad-scientist, salt-and-pepper 'do, looking older than his 43 years.
"You were amazing last night!!!" yelled one concertgoer, referencing his appearance at Yo La Tengo's annual Hanukkah shows in New Jersey. "Uh, excuse me? Is my wife Tweeting again?" Tweedy quipped.
Tweedy left much of the drama to his songs — but even they were delivered lightheartedly and with the sort of laid-back intimacy you'd expect if he was performing in your living room.
After flubbing the lyrics to "Wait Up," from his pre-Wilco band Uncle Tupelo, Tweedy blamed the error on his new Gibson guitar. "It's the first time I've played this and it's like, 'So that's what a rich, full-bodied guitar's supposed to sound like.'"
He also stumbled during "Hummingbird," "Radio King," "Magazine Called Sunset," and crowd favorite "California Stars," on which he was joined by Wilco's John Stirratt and Pat Sansone, whose side-project the Autumn Defense opened the show.
"I've only played that song 7,000 times," joked Tweedy, who re-started the song midway through. "I'm falling apart up here." Still, fans were down for catching Tweedy in such a vulnerable state: "We love it!" shouted one concertgoer.
Other highlights of the gig included the alt-country toe-tapper "The Ruling Class," from his side-project Loose Fur, about a crack-smoking, heroin-shooting traveler, on which the entire venue whistled along; Yankee Hotel Foxtrot ballad "Jesus Etc"; and "You Are Not Alone," a simple ballad of togetherness, which Tweedy wrote for Mavis Staples' new album. No new songs were debuted, surprisingly, although the band is working on a new album for 2011.
The night's best moments showed Wilco's songs stripped of their layered, complex arrangements. The George Harrison-style anthem "One Wing," from their latest album Wilco (The Album), was a gentle ballad; "Muzzle of Bees," a surging art rock number on A Ghost is Born, was a Nick Drake-esque psych-folk number; and "Spiders / Kid Smoke" was stripped to a simple acoustic ditty, void of its bleating kraut-rock rhythms.
During the encore, Tweedy said he was in the Big Apple on holiday vacation with his family and added that they saw the new Pee-wee Herman show on Broadway. He joked that seeing the '80s TV star in real life was like seeing Santa Claus, because he didn't think he even existed. He also called his rare solo concert a Hanukkah present to fans.
"Play the dreidel song," requested one. "No, no, no. I'm not that Jewish," Tweedy responded. Laughter, again, ensued.
Spiders (Kid Smoke)
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
Muzzle of Bees
Wait Up (Uncle Tupelo)
Be Not So Fearful
The Ruling Class (Loose Fur)
When the Roses Bloom Again
A Magazine Called Sunset
You Are Not Alone
I Got You (At the End of the Century)
Shot In the Arm
I'm the Man Who Loves You