"We're gonna play some new songs," Jeff Tweedy told the crowd with a smile on his face at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House on Saturday night. I have admittedly never been the biggest Wilco fan on the planet, but since Tweedy and I grew up a mere 25 minutes apart I have been able to see him play quite a bit over the years. I’ve seen him open for Bob Dylan, seen him close down festivals, and every time I have seen him I have been blown away. He is almost 50 now and he still puts on one of the most interesting and engaging performances I've seen to date. He quips back at the crowd; happy to publicly shame anyone drunk enough to yell something stupid at the band while keeping a weird, gritty kind of stage presence; still lovable, commanding the mood of the room with his self-deprecating humor. He's dropped the Wilco guys for awhile and is touring solo, (it's only temporary, as they’re touring later this summer to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their debut album A.M.). replacing them with a new band of old friends and his son Spencer on drums. Jeff and Spencer wrote his album Sukierae together and released it on Tweedy’s personal label in September of last year. The Tweedy Senior has told reporters that Sukierae is essentially a double album, with a track list of 20, although it was released as one coherent work. When asked about the length of the record in an interview with the Guardian he responded, “I’m not a curmudgeon, a luddite or anti-modern technology doomsayer. I just want to listen to the album and have a feeling that one part has ended, and now I can take a little breather before I listen to the second part.” He may be a bit of a curmudgeon, but thats okay with me.
To open the show Tweedy brought along an old friend, Scott McCaughey and his “pop collective” The Minus 5. For those of us unfamiliar, The Minus 5 is the brain child of McCaughey and formed in 1993 under the premise that the lineup would almost completely turn over with each new album (although former R.E.M. guitarist, Peter Buck, has become somewhat a mainstay with the band). In a theater that will be hosting In the Mood: a Musical Review for most of April, the seats started to slowly fill up with a mixture of jeans, flannel, and a surprisingly wide age group. The Minus 5 started playing promptly at 8 o’clock and opening their set with a track off their newest release Scott the Hoople in the Dungeon of Terror. McCaughey came out truly looking like a guy that’s been playing for a long time, sporting killer red pants and shaggy white hair. The group dealt with the struggles of the late arriving crowd by joking with each other and banging out a couple of classic Neil Young covers. The crowd was clearly not into it at the beginning of their set, but as they went on and the seats began to fill up, the lights got dimmer and the crowd got louder. I can't say was too excited to hear what they had to offer after getting my first view of the aged band walking onto stage, but like any that has been successfully doing this sort of gig for a long time, everyone was locked into their set by their performance's end. This was the last show for McCaughey and company touring with Tweedy and they seemed to let loose a bit and have fun. They played a 45 or so minute set of really well done pop songs and filled in the gaps with old rocker charm. Upon finishing they thanked the crowd and yelled towards back stage for the Tweedy band to get off the oxygen tanks they had had been dragging off for a couple hours before the show. He warned us they were going to be "jacked" for the upcoming set.
After the quick intermission and drink refilling Tweedy and company took their positions on stage. Without saying a word the band jumped into their set, opening with a short crooner, "Hazel", that’s found towards the end of the new record. They continued down that path by following up with "Fake Fur Coat" and you can hear what may be the new, more at peace Jeff Tweedy sing “I accept that I cant receive.” It is still the same Tweedy performing, but he does so with a look of contentment on his face. You could see him turning between songs to look at Spencer, something that has to go down as one of the coolest father/son bonding moments of all time. He has risen from a troubled start as an early musician to now playing a packed opera house with his son 8 feet behind him playing drums - quite a lifestyle change in twenty quick years. The energy was brought back up by one of my favorite tracks on the album, the Beatle-esque "World Away", which ended with Tweedy standing back from the microphone and wailing the chorus. In case you where doubting whether or not he still has it; the big Tweedy and his band play extremely well and his voice in particular was fantastic. He himself will tell you that he doesn’t have a great voice, but he does have a great voice for these particular songs, as well as an impressive ability to put emotion into every lyric. Something that has always been lost on me from the Wilco recordings is how he can make you feel in a live setting. If Tweedy wants to make you feel sad or love sick, he can and will.
It felt like the band was having a legitimately good time with each other on stage. While the big Tweedy introduced the band to us he casually addressed questions from the crowd and poked fun at himself and the band, even calling the back up vocalist "Spencer’s babysitter" when a girl in the front asked if they where “romantically involved.” Kicking back into the set he gave the crowd a bit on insight into why he wrote "No Body Dies Anymore" and covered a song that was never recorded by Chicago native Diane Izzo, who has recently passed away. They finished the first set with another standout on the album, "Low Key", followed by "Please Don’t Let Me Be So Understood". The lights began to slowly dim on stage down to just a single spot light on Tweedy’s microphone, and all at once it seemed that the show was done. Amidst huge applause was an adorable moment between big and little as well as a bow from the rest of the band. I had heard rumor while in line for drinks before the show that Tweedy might perform two separate sets that evening, but I wasn’t convinced it was going to actually happen... until it did. Without much of a pause other than saying goodbye to his band, the crowd quieted down as the single light refocused on Tweedy and his guitar. Out of his mouth we heard, “I am an American aquarium drinker", and in a moment the opera house collectively lost their shit. The rest of this second set was filled with deep cuts and Wilco songs from early albums, even breaking out one Uncle Tupelo song from the vault.
For the encore they brought the band back out to give us a John Lennon and a Neil Young cover. Then they where joined by The Minus 5 to play "California Stars" from the two records Wilco recorded with Billy Bragg. Engaging the crowd beginning to end, it's hard to not feel like he's a guy that you know already. I have yet to mention that he and his band played for nearly three hours that night, an incredible feat for a band of any age or distinction. Not to mention he and the band played for nearly three hours which is just a rare commodity now. Jeff Tweedy fan or not, Wilco fan or not, this man always manages to put on a great show, and Denver saw got exactly that on Saturday evening.