Jeff Tweedy - Shepherds Bush Empire
A lot has been written (and no doubt read) about Wilco's progression from their humble beginnings in the Alt-Country movement of the early 90's to the more experimental and progressive sound of their more recent albums. This transition has been impressive, with their sound developing in such a way that recent Wilco tours have needed more people to convey this new sound live. The addition of Nels Cline and Mikael Jorgensen have bolstered not just the numbers but have been an integral part of the rejuvenation of the band.
The release of a Wilco live album this week (Kicking Television) has allowed this collective of musicians to re-interpret some of the older tracks in a new manner. The ability to hear old favourites in a new light is refreshing and continues with the fact that Wilco's founding man, Jeff Tweedy, has decided to play a series of solo shows to promote the record.
Being a big fan of Wilco and the fact that Jeff was only playing one date in the UK, I was rather chuffed to get a ticket for this show, but turning up on the night I found it hadn't sold out. This was very peculiar as the Wilco shows in the capital are normally sold out events and don't take long to do so. I developed a theory on this and it probably explains why the evening was so good. Wilco have become a band that's "trendy" to like, a hot ticket in London, a chance for people to go and see a band they know nothing about and will probably never hear again, but they MUST be seen to be there.
This probably goes to some length to explain Jeff's chequered past with London crowds, which he acknowledges this evening, with them not getting involved enough and mostly ignoring him and chatting amongst themselves.
Tonight that all changes.
The crowd are in awe tonight - there's reverential silence every time he starts a song, the crowd just want to hear these songs live, played by just one man with a guitar and harmonica. There's plenty of chatter tonight but from the man himself, Jeff "feeling the love" from the crowd as he acknowledges later. With people calling out requests and Jeff recounting tales of playing Christian Colleges in the US before launching into Christ for President and becoming the new self-styled "Lord of the Dark Side" by corrupting the students. Continuing this theme, Jeff previewed a new Loose Fur track this evening Whistling Jesus with the Dark-Lord tempting refrain of "Jesus is back, smoking crack". Perhaps we'll see him sporting a pitchfork and devil horns yet...
The set list is amazing, taking in most of the Wilco back catalogue including some Uncle Tupelo numbers, some Woody Guthrie covers and a Bob Dylan song with a nod to him playing Brixton this evening ("Thanks for coming to see me and not him this evening").
There's a chance for the crowd tonight to hear songs from the Summerteeth album which seems to have fallen out of favour during Wilco sets. She's a Jar and Summer Teeth are highlights but it seems that Jeff is now uncomfortable with the final line of She's a Jar ("You know she begs me not to hit her") and tails off quickly. The only disappointment of the night is to not hear Via Chicago which could be one of his best songs.
What hits you first upon hearing the Wilco songs stripped of the studio trickery and extended codas is how personal they are, how great the lyrics and the underlying melodies are. Reservations is a particular highlight, the lyrics beautifully stark and piercing, there's real emotion not just on stage but in the crowd as well, the silence seems not only to be in respect of Jeff but also a contemplative one as well.
Songs like I am trying to break your heart and I'm the man who loves you from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot which have an obvious beauty on record are stripped down to the bare bones to reveal a more hidden beauty. These lyrics were written through pain and anguish which don't come across as clearly as when the man who wrote them is there, in front of you, by himself, with nothing to hide behind.
Perhaps that's why Jeff does solo shows - it's a chance to meet the fans, to give them something back, a chance to see him alone and unaccompanied. It's an amazing sight and one I hope to be able to witness again.
Picture courtesy of Andrew Dowdall