Jeff Tweedy Melds Jams With Jokes at Los Angeles Solo Show: Concert Review

Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP
Playing a Downtown L.A. movie palace with a stripped-down band, Wilco’s frontman delivered covers and made up tales aplenty, like how it was “the room where Shirley Temple got her first period.”

Jeff Tweedy is nothing if not a problem solver. A dilemma facing any singer embarking on a solo side project — especially after as lengthy a band-leading tenure as Tweedy’s in Wilco — is how to work the beloved back catalog into a live show without imitating or betraying the combo of origin. Tweedy arrived for the first of two concerts at the Theatre at Ace Hotel on Saturday with a crowd-pleasing fix already in place, dedicating the first half of the show to band performances of songs from last fall’s excellent Sukierae, followed by a greatest-hits mini-set in solo acoustic format, capped by a covers-dominated group finale. No toes are stepped on, and a hungry audience leaves sated…maybe we should put Tweedy to work on even tougher political pickles.

Not that starting off a show with 10 songs from a modest-selling new double album would always be a wise course for an artist with a less devoted or trusting following than Tweedy’s. It may have helped that, compared with the sonic expansiveness of so much latter-day Wilco material, most of the Sukierae songs are relatively stripped-down and easy on first-time ears. It certainly didn’t hurt Saturday that Tweedy was in his warmest and funniest mode between songs, whether he was sharing possibly apocryphal stories of playing an adult day care center or definitely made-up tales about the history of the 1920s movie palace he was headlining, like how it was “the room where Shirley Temple got her first period.” Bashfully looking back at the drummer as the material got slightly more blue, he added, “Sorry, Spencer, we’ll talk about this later.”

Spencer would be his 19-year-old son and partner in the act they’ve dubbed Tweedy, which technically makes this not quite officially a solo project. In the tradition of Wolfgang Van Halen and a few other fresh-faced stage scions, the recent high school graduate was fully up to the dad-following task at hand, laying down laconic, Ringo Starr-style tom-tom fills on the slower songs, then betraying a jazzier virtuosity when it came to rocking the double bass pedal on the tricky rhythms of “Diamond Light Pt. 1.” But it’s almost as if Tweedy includes a third, non-contributing, offstage family member in Jeff’s wife and Spencer’s mom, Sue Tweedy, whose nickname provided the title for Sukierae, much as her recent illness and recovery provided much of the album’s emotional impetus.

The 20 songs on Sukierae have some pretty dark undertones — or even overtones — in large part as a result of Mrs. Tweedy having been diagnosed with lymphoma early in its making. Jeff Tweedy is an unpredictable enough songwriter that that family crisis didn’t result in any deeply sentimental songs. Even the one that’s most obviously concerned with mortality, “Nobody Dies Anymore,” weighs the pros of a big turnover on this mortal coil as well as death’s obvious cons, apropos for a roundabout songwriter who recently told an interviewer that “I don’t ever feel committed to one emotion for very long.”

If the album itself is emotionally ambiguous in the face of questions about love and suffering, the show was determinedly more upbeat. With the audience enlisted to sing along on “Slow Love,” the song seemed less spooky and more like a comforting campfire chant. By the time Tweedy got to the solo/Wilco portion of the show — with all of the Ace’s rafter lights turned off in favor of one spotlight — he was very much emphasizing his most overtly cheerful catalog numbers. One possible reason for skewing the set that way was the announced presence in the house of “Susie,” whom he described as “the most badass human alive…. You don’t have to be badass for me to love you. It helps, though.”

An encore of John Lennon’s “God” had him changing the climactic “Yoko and me” to “Susie and me” (though he resisted the temptation to change “Beatles” in the lyrics to “Wilco,” forestalling any breakup rumors that might result, since that band does have dates booked later this year). From there, the encore section was filled with the pure country that Tweedy once seemed determined to shed as a tag, or albatross. Covering Neil Young (“The Losing End”), Doug Sahm (“Give Back the Keys to My Heart”) and himself/Billy Bragg/Woody Guthrie (“California Stars,” the one time he let these players touch something Wilco also had), Tweedy happily resigned himself to the comfort food that is alt-twang in the home stretch. It could be that worrying about whether anybody stereotypes you as Americana seems a little less important after you’ve stared death in the face.

Setlist:

1.     Summer Noon

2.     World Away

3.     New Moon

4.     Fake Fur Coat

5.     Diamond Light Pt. 1

6.     Wait for Love

7.     Slow Love

8.     High as Hello

9.     Love Like a Wire (Diane Izzo cover)

10.   Low Key

11.   Nobody Dies Anymore

Solo set

12.  I Am Trying to Break Your Heart (Wilco song)

13.  Remember the Mountain Bed (Billy Bragg & Wilco)

14.  You and I (Wilco)

15.  New Madrid (Wilco)

16.  Passenger Side (Wilco)

17.  Whole Love (Wilco)

18.  I’m the Man Who Loves You (Wilco)

19.  Misunderstood (Wilco)

Band returns

20.  Please Don’t Let Me Be So Understood

21.  Only the Lord Knows (Mavis Staples song)

Encore

22.  God (John Lennon cover)

23.  The Losing End (Neil Young cover)

24.  Give Back the Key to My Heart (Doug Sahm cover)

25.  California Stars (Billy Bragg & Wilco song)

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