Tweedy’s night out

Jeff Tweedy’s arc of relative fame has been a peculiar one. Starting out in Illinois-based alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo with fellow singer-songwriter Jay Farrar, Tweedy’s own voice and textures were often muffled in the four-on-the-floor approach to much of Tupelo’s material. And then there’s the little matter that Tweedy’s material during the Tupelo days wasn’t nearly as good as Farrar’s. Where Farrar seemed confident and secure—both in his songwriting and in his vocal delivery of those songs—Tweedy came off as tentative, awkward and often unintentionally tender.

Of course, some of that tentative, awkward tenderness is what eventually made his songwriting great. Tweedy’s second band, Wilco, brought his songwriting and singing to the forefront and also marked the emergence of a major American talent. Wilco’s trajectory has by turns continued and raced away from the alt-country essence that made Uncle Tupelo famous. Though Wilco’s first two albums, 1995’s A.M. and the following year’s double-album set Being There, still held shreds of alt-country tinsel in their increasingly rock ’n’ roll hairstyles, it wasn’t until the sequence of Wilco’s last three albums that its direction really became apparent. Summerteeth (1998), the much-lauded Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) and A Ghost Is Born (2004) all paired straight-ahead rock songwriting with an increasing interest in noise and sound art.

This compressed Jeff Tweedy history lesson is important in that it frames what Tweedy did not do at his recent solo set at the Fillmore in San Francisco. Instead of attempting some kind of updated sound-art version of his set, Tweedy played it like a straight, clean folk singer: strumming and occasionally fingerpicking his guitar through a series of crisp songs that made what were perceived as weaknesses during his Tupelo days into strengths.

Opening with “Sunken Treasure” from Being There, Tweedy’s set plucked tunes from his entire Wilco catalog—including several cuts from the two albums the band did with Billy Bragg, setting unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics to song. Of course, hearing Tweedy play those songs wasn’t even the icing on the cake. That came when he was joined by two fellow Wilco band members: drummer Glenn Kotche and guitarist Nels Cline (the latter had opened the show with a solo-guitar noise fest). Both performers played some with Tweedy individually and then together joined him for Summerteeth’s “In a Future Age” and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s “War on War,” in a brief but terrific Wilco-unplugged set.

Not to be undone, Tweedy performed the final song of the evening standing on the edge of the stage with no amplification at all, his gritty voice somehow pushing out into the huge room all by its lonesome self. And, as if finally to acknowledge from whence he had come (and gone), he sang “Acuff-Rose” from Uncle Tupelo’s swan-song album Anodyne. It was beautiful to behold.