Jeff Tweedy, Pabst Theater, Milwaukee, WI- 6/16
You’d have to ask Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy what he did to celebrate Father’s Day with his wife and two sons. But yesterday, he was in Milwaukee at the Pabst Theater with his 18-year-old son (and drummer) Spencer for a post-Father’s Day victory lap. The Milwaukee stop was the songwriter’s first stop of the second leg of the tour to partly promote the duo’s (dubbed simply Tweedy) new album Sukierae, which is out Sept. 16.
“I’m so proud of him,” Tweedy said gleefully of his son’s recent high school graduation and accomplishments, during band introductions. Spencer playfully gave an “aw, shucks dad” expression but went along with the acknowledgement. He certainly showed he wanted to be there as he dutifully played the drums with skill beyond his young age and had a keen interest in keeping the beat.
That’s not to say they were the only ones there for a special evening of music. For this tour, they were joined by three other band members including guitarist Jim Elkington. Elkington showed how masterful he was on guitar, once in awhile breaking out a solo. The rest of the band also showed why Tweedy handpicked them as well with strong playing.
While almost half of the 20 plus song set featured new songs from Sukierae, they really gelled as a group. They seem to have used their past gigs to work out any kinks and rolled along like a well-oiled machine. The songs were tentative working versions but full of confidence and swagger. Tweedy has been to Milwaukee a number of times but he made sure this time really stood out with a diversely satisfying night of music.
The last non-Wilco show Tweedy played in Milwaukee was four years ago as part of Farm Aid 25 at Miller Park, though it was all-too-brief to get a sense of what Tweedy is about without his main band. On this night though, the audience got to see the singer-songwriter’s eclectic nature in full. Even though the crowd didn’t know the new songs yet, they were fully supportive. There were rootsy, funky, bluesy and more textures to these songs – something not surprising given Tweedy and Wilco’s expansive sounding catalog. Tweedy and the band opened the set with the slow burner “Down from Above” and proceeded to leap head first into a barrage of new songs. “Where My Love” was a highlight later on in the set where Tweedy sung about longing for love and wanting “to see what you and I become.” Many of the other new songs were equally impressive and some captured the cinematic nature that Wilco songs sometimes have.
The band played a number of songs without Tweedy saying much of anything. But the Milwaukee audience certainly wasn’t afraid to voice whatever came to mind and got Tweedy to talk more. It started when someone shouted “Good job!” after one of songs. The singer took it all in stride with snarky humor and soon become chatty with the crowd. Some examples: “If it was Neil Young up here would you say great job?”/“This is what happens when we lose control”/“I’m very aware it’s Milwaukee”/ “Nice job – let’s make that a thing”/“This is why Wilco wanted to take a break.” He also joked about making a “nice” cult. At one point it was a chuckle fest between Tweedy and the crowd, though Tweedy didn’t stray too long from playing music.
He was still able to keep the connection going into “Slow Love,” which included a sing-along. “It’s not everyday that you get to sing along to a song that you don’t know,” Tweedy said. He then mentioned that maybe they do know it because of YouTube and joked about playing a video from there instead. Fortunately they played the real deal as the song was another highlight with strong guitar work and vocals.
Midway through the show, as if to say “thank you” for the crowd’s support of the new material, Tweedy decided to give them something a bit more familiar, with songs from Wilco, Uncle Tupelo and his other projects. The rest of the band left the stage and it was just Tweedy, his guitar and sometimes a harmonica for a handful of songs. Songs like “Via Chicago” and “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” had a raw intimate power to them that demanded attention. The lyrics of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart were even more biting and impactful. After another round of joking about taking a pill that made “Free Bird” sound like a new song, Tweedy played “New Madrid,” a song from his alt-country supergroup Uncle Tupelo. A few songs later he dedicated Golden Smog’s “Pecan Pie” to his wife.
The rest of the band came back then to perform a few more songs for the encore. This included a cover of Doug Sahm’s “Give Back the Key to My Heart” and another new song – “Low Key” – that was anything but with an upbeat groove.
After the band left once again – and following a quick hug by his son – Tweedy offered a stunning version of Wilco’s “Misunderstood,” that ended in a sing-along of the chorus “I want to thank you for nothing at all” with the “nothing at all” part getting louder as the song came to a close. Though it was clear that the crowd meant the opposite in regards to Tweedy and his bandmates, who left everything they had on stage. Jeff Tweedy has done just about everything and he showed off why he’s such a special songwriter.
Nice job Jeff. No really, we really mean it.