Jeff Tweedy – Iowa Memorial Union Ballroom (Iowa City, IA) / Wilco – Val Air Ballroom (West Des Moines, IA)
During his sold-out solo show at the University of Iowa, Jeff Tweedy took droll delight in mocking his public persona. In the middle of a new song called “Is That The Thanks I Get?”, which he’d written for soul legend Solomon Burke (but which hadn’t made it onto the Joe Henry-produced album), Tweedy tried to cajole the crowd into contributing a “We can make it better” litany as chorus call-and-response.
He admitted that the sing-along was a cheesy rock star move. But it would help the song, and would make the singer really, really happy. So as he waited for the enraptured audience to respond as he knew it inevitably would, he continued to conjure a scenario of cheesy rock star moves: the return to the dressing room for some indulgence before the encore, the extended interlude (making them wait, making them beg) before deigning to return to the stage. And then maybe stumbling a little upon his return, the tortured artist who’d indulged himself a little too much during that interlude.
And, of course, the audience would applaud his every move.
“Nobody suffers like that dude!” he said in the voice of a fan, both summarizing and satirizing what has seemed to be a large part of Tweedy’s appeal in recent years as Wilco’s brooding, mercurial frontman. If there was a lesson to be learned from Tweedy’s two Iowa appearances, little more than a month (and a hundred miles) apart, it’s that he’s suffering no more. Or at least he’s keeping it to himself.
After a post-Uncle Tupelo decade of well documented travail (record company problems, band upheaval, self-medication excesses), establishing Tweedy as both the poster boy for artistic integrity (has anyone suffered more for his art?) and the whipping boy for betrayal of alt-country verities (whatever they are), he now seems almost borderline giddy. At least that was the impression reinforced during Wilco’s performance of “Hummingbird” to a decidedly older Des Moines crowd than the one at the university, where he exercised the dorkiest of rock star moves by running in place for extended mid-song calisthenics.
The two shows left little doubt: He’s happy with his current Wilco lineup (“I’m having a good time, but I can’t wait to get back with the band,” he told the Iowa City crowd), he’s happy with his record company, he’s happy with his music, he’s happy with his family, and he’s happy with his audience. At least his Iowa audience, which was spared the hectoring he’d occasionally directed at chattier crowds on the solo tour.
“I just want to soak up the silence,” he said of the rapt attention he received in Iowa City. “Do they teach that here?…There’s nothing I love more than making music when it feels like everybody in the room is working toward the same goal.”
On the surface, since Jeff Tweedy is Wilco to many of his fans (and perhaps to his band, or at least those dismissed from it), a solo billing might make as much sense as Trent Reznor without Nine Inch Nails. Yet the solo acoustic performance reinforced the continuity of his songwriting, showing that there isn’t as much difference as older fans might think between an Uncle Tupelo favorite such as “Acuff Rose” (an encore delight in Iowa City) and the tunefulness of more recent Wilco material such as the Kinksian “The Late Greats” (a highlight of both shows) or “Heavy Metal Drummer”.
The difference is in the noise the band brings, which was out in full force at the Val Air (one of those venerable Midwestern ballrooms where big bands once played, on the same circuit as Buddy Holly’s fatal tour). Behind the buoyant melodic simplicity of Tweedy’s acoustic guitar on the set-opening “Handshake Drugs”, guitarist Nels Cline raised a squall reminiscent of Neil Young with Crazy Horse, while drummer Glenn Kotche (who served as opening act and encore returnee on the solo tour) provided punctuation throughout the set that went well beyond typical rock propulsion.
Each set illuminated the other. The solo performance showed Tweedy’s music stripped to its essence, his relationship with the audience almost living-room conversational, while the six-man band built layer upon layer on sound to take the music wherever it wanted to go. For the first full hour of the band show, Tweedy didn’t say a word between songs. He didn’t need to. The ebullience of the performance said it all.