Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Sunken Treasure

As mentioned here a time or two, I've seen Jeff Tweedy play two solo acoustic shows in the past 12 days. I've been to so many Wilco shows over the years that I've lost count -- 20? 25? -- but these were my first times seeing Jeff perform solo and in person. (The DVDs of Sunken Treasure and I Am Trying To Break Your Heart don't count.) And all I can say about it, really, is that it was something very special on both occasions. But then, what else is there to say?

Simply put, Jeff Tweedy is my favorite songwriter of the past 15 years. I found him overshadowed by Jay Farrar in Uncle Tupelo, and since 1994 have followed him and Wilco (and Golden Smog, and Loose Fur, and the Mermaid Avenue project) from record to record, and show to show (sometimes literally), with a devotion and enthusiasm that, over that period at least, I haven't managed to summon for any other artist. In a sense, the solo shows have reminded me why that is. People can and do admire Wilco for a lot of reasons -- the fact that they've endured so many line-up changes over the years; the way they constantly strive to grow and evolve and never do the same thing twice; the bravery with which they've engaged in all sorts of experimentation, adding challenging, even confrontational sonic elements to music that a great many of their fanbase still expects, fundamentally, to be Americana; and the creative integrity and resolve with which they stood up to their former label when it reacted to the most perfect thing they had ever delivered (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) with, well, let's just call it less than rapturous enthusiasm, and insisted that the record be released either as-is or not at all.

But what struck me most at The Tabernacle last night, and in Nashville 12 days ago, is that it's the songs and the voice of Jeff Tweedy that lie at the heart of what makes Wilco, in my opinion, a great band, the best American band today, maybe the best band working right now, period. Take away the avant garde production techniques that have characterized Wilco's more recent work, remove the contributions of the other, uniformly extraordinary musicians that now comprise the band -- hell, even ditch the electronic amplification altogether (as Jeff did twice last night) -- and all you have left up there on the stage is a guy with a guitar, playing his heart out, singing one astonishing song after another, and doing it as if his life depended on it, as if he literally has no other choice but to do this thing that he's doing. Thankfully for him, and for us, I don't know of a soul who does it any better.

Watch: Sunken Treasure DVD trailer

MP3: Jeff Tweedy - "Please Tell My Brother" (live at Harper College, Palatine, IL, March 5, 1999)

MP3: Jeff Tweedy - "She's a Jar" (live at The Vic, Chicago, January 2003)

MP3: Jeff Tweedy - "One By One" (live at Mandell Hall, University of Chicago, February 25, 2006)