There are at least two well-know sides to Wilco or, more specifically to the band’s lead singer, Jeff Tweedy. The first is that of a trailblazing, good-time-loving, KISS-covering, beer-soaked ex-alt-country rock ‘n roller. Playing a rollicking version of “Kingpin” last fall at the University of Mississippi, Tweedy dropped all pretense of exploration, defying those who call his band the American Radiohead by staying true to the roots of classic rock. While their last three albums have featured deep sonic explorations, Wilco’s performance was almost exclusively about playing good-time music. The band’s members are steeped in music history and have a deep appreciation for those who came before them—thus, they make a point (in concert) of paying their respects.
Of course, there’s a second side to the band, the one that engendered the American Radiohead comparisons in the first place. It’s this more experimental aspect that has pushed them beyond the security of their first two albums, earning the group’s status as “the most popular band you have never heard on the radio.” In these endeavors, Tweedy, ever the genius, has surrounded himself with excellent supporting musicians. This is not a new idea—Miles Davis hired the best sidemen in the world to help realize his concepts—and it speaks to Tweedy’s commitment to his craft that he’s willing to change line-ups and collaborate with artists who are accomplished in their own right.
Enter Glenn Kotche. Opening for Tweedy on the first night of a southern solo jaunt, the veteran drummer’s hammering sent a wave of excited murmurs through the crowd. Kotche works in atmospherics and percussion the way talented artists work in oils and clay— thriving in his true medium. Kotche’s ability to deconstruct and rebuild a melody with a drum kit leaves one with the impression he or she has just watched an Olympic sport: total awe. Towards the end of his set, he opened the lids on more than 20 small boxes of crickets to help subsidize the jungle milieu in his song “Monkey Chant”—a reminder that the other members of Wilco play a crucial role in the band’s innovations and singular sound.
That brings us to a third and, in my opinion, under-discussed aspect of Jeff Tweedy’s musical personality: he’s a stand-up comedian. Coming on soon after Kotche, Tweedy devoted half his performance to comedy, dropping zingers in every form imaginable: short one-liners, long anecdotal stories made exponentially longer by the crowd egging him on, and physical comedy. He even acted out of his now-infamous altercation with a fan at a show in Missouri.
Soon after starting the show with ultra-personal Being There gem “Sunken Treasure,” Tweedy launched into highlights from his recent family vacation to Mexico. He talked about soul food side-items for about 20 minutes and, towards the end of the night, led the sold-out crowd in a contest to see who could think of the best band name to describe a bowel movement (he claims that his son’s favorite is Green Day, though he might have been thinking of Dookie).
Amid the one-liners and long rants, Tweedy did manage to squeeze in a few songs. He played an incredibly diverse set, including early Uncle Tupelo songs, Mermaid Avenue-era Woody Guthrie tunes, and tracks from the soon-to-be-released Wilco record. He even played a Golden Smog number that he claimed was recorded in Memphis. In other words, there were many non-hilarious musical highlights (and not just from Kotche)—most notably, “Theologians” and the new stuff.
By the end of the evening Tweedy had given a good sampling of his diverse catalog. While the songs were executed well, the overall theme of the show was, as he himself proclaimed, “Jeff Tweedy: The Yuck-Yuck Guy working the comedy circuit… Another facet to an already multifaceted man.