Concert review: Jeff Tweedy at Jo Ann Davidson Theatre

Andy Downing

On “Radio King,” which Jeff Tweedy performed near the midpoint of his solo concert at Jo Ann Davidson Theatre on Sunday, the Wilco frontman tangled with the relationship between artist and audience from the fan’s perspective.

“Your music fills my car/Your voice breaks every time,” he sang. “I’m still wondering/If I know who you are/I hang on every line.”

With his intimate new solo album, Warm, and his 2018 memoir, Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back),Tweedy has lifted that veil significantly higher, offering deeper insight into everything from his current view of humankind (let’s just say it’s less than positive) to how he receives those critics who charge that his music has been blunted by sobriety. “What drugs did you take and why don’t you start taking them again?” he sang with typical candor on “Having Been Is No Way to Be.” “But they’re not my friends/And if I was dead/What difference would it ever make to them?”

Over the course of 90 minutes, Tweedy charted the breadth of his musical journey, performing a smattering of new solo songs alongside Wilco classics and older tunes like “New Madrid,” which he penned while playing alongside Jay Farrar in the pioneering Belleville, Illinois, country-punk band Uncle Tupelo. This journey also served as the basis for the opening couplet off Warm track “Bombs Above”: “I leave behind a trail of songs/From the darkest gloom to the brightest sun.”

Tweedy spent more time exploring these shadowy regions of his deep catalogue on this night, rhyming “countryside” with “suicide” on “Some Birds,” easing into a bruised “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” that lived up to the promise of its title and turning the Noah’s Ark-conjuring “Let’s Go Rain” into an audience sing-along so catchy that it nearly obscured the song’s core message. “It’s a plea for everything to just kind of end,” Tweedy said in preamble.

Stripped to the studs, a number of songs took on new dimensions. A folksy “Via Chicago,” performed absent the usual full-band, noise-rock asides, could have emerged from a Chicago still dense with stockyards rather than skyscrapers, while a skeletal “Impossible Germany” felt rickety absent the quicksilver guitar solos normally provided by Wilco guitarist Nels Cline. Far better was a trip to Mermaid Avenue on the Woody Guthrie-penned “Remember the Mountain Bed,” which packed the weight of romantic memory into the earthy sights, sounds and smells of the forest.

Still other songs were updated to reflect modern technology, such as “Misunderstood,” on which Tweedy altered the line “It’s only a quarter to three/Reflecting off of your CD” to end with “MP3.”

These trips into Tweedy’s musical past also helped bring the present into sharper relief. On “Misunderstood,” from Wilco’s 1996 album Being There, relationships were still something of a mystery to Tweedy. “You love her but you don’t know why,” he sang. Flash forward to 2019 and new song “Guaranteed,” which Tweedy penned for his wife, Sue, and which centers on the idea that love becomes stronger not in spite of life’s difficulties but because of them. (The tune was one of a pair Tweedy played off the forthcoming Warmer, due April 13.)

Between songs, the musician flashed an easy charm, a quick wit and a deadpan sense of humor. He relayed his favorite kind of applause (smattering), playfully chided an audience member who left a jacket slumped in the aisle — “Put that away,” he said after momentarily confusing the coat for an alien creature — and offered comic insight into his creative process.

“[This is] a song I wrote for my wife,” he said introducing Warmer track “Guaranteed.” “She hates it.”

Tweedy then went on to explain that an early version of the tune included the lyric, “I’m a piece of work/And you’re a work of art.” Much to his wife’s dismay, he later amended the line, and he performed the updated version here. “I’m a piece of work,” he sang. “And you’re no walk in the park.”

Elsewhere, a number of songs touched on death, but the subject never felt bleak, Tweedy approaching it more as a cosmic inevitability than a shoulder-slumping weight. “We all think about dying,” he sang in a warm, slightly rumpled tenor on “Don’t Forget.” “Don’t let it kill you.”

Shortly thereafter the musician followed with a sweet, starlit “Acuff-Rose,” written during his days in Uncle Tupelo. “Sometimes I get the feeling everything’s OK,” he sang, a sentiment that arrived like dawn at the end of a long night and, like the best of Tweedy’s songs, served as a gentle reminder that one way to keep from being paralyzed by death is to continue to embrace life in all its messy imperfection.