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February 28, 2006

Tweedy treats students to intimate acoustic set

It seems the Major Activities Board (MAB) has nailed the formula for its fall and winter shows. For the second time this year, MAB brought an artist to Mandel Hall who promised, if nothing else, an intimate performance. Rufus Wainwright’s fall show allowed the audience to get friendly with a familiar college act. Expectations for Jeff Tweedy were not very different. The word on everybody’s tongue Saturday night was “insight,” but intimate was really what everyone was feeling.

Tweedy and his associates, including but not limited to Wilco, like to put a lot of emphasis on mood. Saturday night, that mood was set by opener and Wilco contributor Nels Cline. Nels put on a half-hour set that was part physics experiment and part guitar clinic. Drifting between somber jazz and frantic tinkering with pedals and loop boxes, he produced a sonic experience that left me scratching my head, thinking, “How the hell can I get my guitar to do that?”

Tweedy sauntered on stage roughly a half-hour later, picked up his guitar, and started with a great mood setter, “Sunken Treasure,” off Wilco’s 1996 double album Being There. Tweedy lilted through the song, holding a few notes longer than usual and appropriately introducing himself in the final lines: “I was maimed by rock ’n’ roll/ I was tamed by rock ’n’ roll/ Got my name from rock ’n’ roll.”

The set continued with a diverse makeup of songs stretching from Tweedy’s Uncle Tupelo days through Wilco’s latest release, A Ghost is Born. He even included “The Ruling Class,” a song from the upcoming Loose Fur CD, in which he satirically sang about Jesus coming back to L.A. as a crack addict. This song was appropriately dedicated to all the Comparative Religion students in attendance.

During this solo acoustic performance, Tweedy was a bit more talkative than usual. Commenting on the floor lights that illuminated him and only him in the auditorium, Tweedy noted that the audience seemed like “a black hole…in the best of ways.” Usually when a songwriter talks onstage, they expound on their feelings in a rather bombastic manner. Tweedy used his microphone time to interact with the audience.

The other big attraction of this show, especially if you’re a Wilco fan, is to appreciate how good Wilco songs sound—even without the intricate overlay of percussion, synthesizer, and electric guitar. All of Wilco’s amazing songs begin as an acoustic shell very different from the final product, and it’s a sure treat to hear them live in that fashion. Perhaps the best example from Saturday’s show was Tweedy’s rendition of “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” which, on CD, has a prominent trance-like beat and a furiously distorted pair of guitar solos. Saturday’s rendition, while quite minimalist compared to the full-band version, carried about the same amount of energy straight through to the end.

For the second encore, Tweedy was accompanied by Cline on dobro and lap-slide guitar for a few songs, including “Dash 7” off of A.M. and a cover of Neil Young’s “Walk On.” While Nels’s opening set was furious at times, he and Tweedy worked well together, keeping the extra work to a minimal, but still impressively intricate, level.

The most intimate moment of the night came at the end of the show, when Tweedy moved to the very front of the stage with his oldest guitar. Unplugged and without P.A., he performed the Uncle Tupelo song “Acuff-Rose.” The house lights came up a bit, giving Tweedy his first real glimpse of the audience that until that point, as he put it, consisted of “voices in my head.”

I’m sure sitting in the second row had something to do with it, but nonetheless, this experience was unlike any other that I’ve had at a rock concert. Few musicians today make an effort to personally connect with their audience; besides, it takes a good deal of talent and courage to perform without hiding behind any electricity. This concert was truly the closest, figuratively and literally, that I’ve been to one of my favorite musicians. Hopefully, it won’t be the last time.