Jeff Tweedy / Ben Kweller – Lilli’s (Somerville, MA)
Jeff Tweedy is cock.
“I could fill you in with the cock…stuff”, offered the Wilco frontman, after performing a new song, “War On War”, and telling the audience it was called “Cock On Cock”. “Being around Ben [Kweller, the show’s opening act] for the past week has reminded me of my childhood, when we used to say cock all the time,” Tweedy explained. “We used to say ‘cock’ for ‘good’ or ‘neato’ or ‘that’s nice.’ Like, ‘Excuse me sir, your watch is cock.’ All kinds of things have come back from hanging out with, um, old Ben.”
“Old” Ben Kweller is nineteen. Formerly the lead singer of the Texas “sugar punk” trio Radish, Kweller opened several shows on Tweedy’s recent East Coast solo tour. Not only is Kweller young, but he looks young — like he could be twelve — and he seems to enjoy playing that up onstage, with lots of tongue-in-cheek rock-star poses (leaps, windmills, etc.), all of which appear that much more exaggerated coming from a guy who looks more like Macaulay Culkin than your stereotypical rock and roller.
But Kweller is no poser, ultimately, and he proved that to the sold-out crowd at Lilli’s who packed the place long before Tweedy took the stage. Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, harmonica, and a couple of times on piano, Kweller easily won over the crowd from the start, and he kept up the momentum throughout a ten-song set of quirky original compositions covering subjects as far-flung as asteroids, movie stars, and the passive-aggressive nature of butterflies.
When it was the 33-year-old’s turn to take the stage, Jeff Tweedy did so quietly, with a new song, “Not For The Season”, a moody, raga-like piece that he debuted last spring during Chicago’s NoisePop Festival. Next up was a Dylanesque rendering of “Sunken Treasure” (from 1996’s Being There), with superb fingerpicking and harmonica. The vocal, too, was inspired, the lyrics updated to reflect Tweedy’s current movement away from his Uncle Tupelo, and even his early Wilco, origins: “I don’t need rock ‘n’ roll anymore/I got my name from rock ‘n’ roll.”
Anyone who has seen Wilco live in the past year knows that the band can still rock, and with Mermaid Avenue II as their last release, there can be no doubt about their awareness of, and indulgence in, American roots music. But Tweedy’s lyrics have become progressively associative, dark, and sado-domestic, with at least as much emphasis placed upon the sound of words as the sense of them. Tonight the audience was treated to seven of his latest songwriting efforts — “Not For The Season”, “War On War”, “I’m The Man Who Loves You”, “Heavy Metal Drummer”, “Reservations”, “I’m Trying To Break Your Heart”, and “Ashes Of An American Flag” — most of which are likely to be released on Wilco’s next album, due this summer.
These songs will certainly sound much different in the studio (if the band’s last effort, Summerteeth, is any indication), so this was an uncommon opportunity to hear them fresh out of the Tweedy songbook and stripped to their bare essentials. Until recently, such intimate performances were mostly limited to his wife’s club, Chicago’s legendary Lounge Ax, but with the unfortunate demise of that club last January, he’s been forced to seek other venues.
The show at Lilli’s sold out the day tickets went on sale. There wasn’t a lot of breathing room down in front, but the audience was surprisingly reverent; even those back near the bar were listening. Which is not to say that the crowd was passive or tame. Tweedy had no problem encouraging sing-alongs during “Passenger Side” and “California Stars”, and there was plenty of jovial between-song banter, not to mention the inevitable cries for Uncle Tupelo songs.
Tweedy teased a little early on, with a very brief parody of his own youth and “Screen Door”, but those in the audience seeking a bit of the old (or should we say young) Jeff Tweedy did not leave disappointed. He closed his 14-song set with a pair of Tupelo numbers, “Wait Up” and “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down”, then topped-off an eight-song encore (a second set, really) with “Acuff-Rose”.
The show lasted nearly two-hours, with samplings from all three Wilco albums plus a healthy dose of the Mermaid Avenue collaborations. It was a rare treat for those of us who never did make it to Lounge Ax.