September 18, 2007

Tweedy’s team: Newest — and best — incarnation of Wilco headlines Slugger Field

From the backseat of a 1965 Galaxie convertible, an unexpected passenger is demanding that we start the CD over and turn it up, way up. Even though it is common knowledge that the rider is no longer a drinking man, he’s offered a lukewarm can of Stroh’s (which he politely declines) before his request is honored. The man in the back is Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and on this particular day, he seems in the mood not for cheap beer, but rather to sing along with Ray Davies on “20th Century Man,” the first cut off the Kinks’ classic Muswell Hillbillies album.Part of our time together is spent inspecting vintage amps at a guitar shop and rummaging through old vinyl at a hole-in-the-wall store. We also spend a good portion of the time lost, though Tweedy is repeatedly assured he is in good hands. He pretends to believe this for the duration of the journey, despite the aluminum evidence rapidly accumulating on the old Ford’s floorboards. Many top-down days have come and gone since then, and, although there is more to the story, it’s fair to say this brief encounter is not terribly significant. But it certainly speaks volumes about Tweedy’s style.Unlike many of his megalomaniac peers in the music business, Tweedy apparently has no reservations about ditching his handlers and hopping into ancient automobiles with total strangers. And more importantly, it is clear from this episode that Tweedy never relinquished the role of passionate music fan when he achieved rock star status. He is, at least in part, driven by his own rock ’n’ roll fan-hood. Hooked on music at a young age, Tweedy worked as a music journalist for his high school paper, a record store clerk and bass player for Uncle Tupelo, which he co-piloted with Jay Farrar. Always on the verge, UT didn’t break through until they broke up.In a phone interview, Farrar recalls the Tupelo period fondly but thinks the band has been retrospectively lionized a bit too much. This is especially true, he says, when talking about UT’s status as the standard-bearer for the alt-country movement.Farrar, perhaps predictably, has little to say about Tweedy these days. It is no secret that he and Tweedy barely spoke while they were bandmates. In 1994, without much explanation, Farrar left to form Son Volt, and Tweedy absorbed what was left of the Uncle Tupelo touring line-up into his new band Wilco.Though he has since participated in a variety of musical side-projects and published several literary diversions, Jeff Tweedy has been most prolific as Wilco’s principal singer, songwriter and pastoral director. In spite of a relentless touring schedule, and much personal and professional turmoil, Wilco has managed to release one live record, a handful of EPs and eight studio albums over the course of the last 12 years. Tweedy and company have also been repeatedly invited to contribute songs to high-profile tribute albums and major motion picture soundtracks. In its spare time, the band was even followed around as the subject of an acclaimed documentary by filmmaker Sam Jones. Interestingly, with the notable exception of bassist John Stirratt, Tweedy’s cohorts have changed numerous times. Still, the group has remained a creative collective. Always bringing sincerity and integrity to their projects, Wilco has experimented over the years with a wide range of genres, including folk, rock, country, pop, alternative rock and jazz. Tweedy thrives on the collaborative spirit of the band, whoever happens to be in it, and the current roster makes the most sense thus far for fulfilling his vision. Tweedy returns to town Friday at Slugger Field with the same all-stars that graced the stage of Iroquois Park Amphitheater last October, and with whom he completed Sky Blue Sky, a studio masterpiece, over the winter. The subtle beauty and understated virtuosity that characterize Sky Blue Sky will be the perfect sounds for one last outdoor concert or top-down cruise. Just be careful who you let into your car! Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.comWilco & Dr. DogFriday, Sept. 21Slugger Field401 E. Main St.361-3100$33; 6:30 (gates), 8 p.m. (show)