Live Review: Tweedy with The Minus 5, The Rialto Theatre, Tucson, AZ, 3/25/15
Let Us Start Before the Beginning
Having seen Wilco in concert four times over the last 11 years, and now adding to that this performance by Tweedy (Jeff’s project with his son, Spencer), I think that I can state with the highest level of authority that I am an unabashed Wilcophile. The only band that I have seen more often is Squeeze/Glenn Tilbrook solo for a total of 7 times in about 15 years. I suppose the thing with these bands is that, while not a religious man in the slightest, I am struck by a profoundly deep, cleansing, and ultimately spiritually fulfilling sense of occasion, and though there is a distressing part of me that considers it heresy to say so, over the years it is Wilco that has brought me to an unparalleled state of catharsis through their live performance (Glenn Tilbrook’s playing and singing is a close, close second, but there’s only so much spiritual fulfillment one can gain from a three minute pop song). Needless to say, Tweedy had a lot to live up to.
The Pluses and Minuses of The Minus 5
To begin with, though, we had an opening performance from a band that I was very excited to hear live for the first time, The Minus 5. The band’s name may be unfamiliar to many reading this, but key players should be very familiar. Lead singer, multi-instrumentalist, and principal songwriter, Scott McCaughey—apart from being a founding member of seminal ‘80s underground rock outfit The Young Fresh Fellows—was a long time contributor and touring member of R.E.M., and recently one third of Robyn Hitchcock’s backing band The Venus 3; a second third of The Venus 3, but perhaps best known as a founding R.E.M. The band has many fine albums, including their latest, Dungeon Golds, released earlier this year. I highly recommend this band for fans of quality, hook-filled pop music with smart, quirky lyrics.
The Minus 5’s set consisted primarily of selections from the new album (“It’s Magenta, Man!”; “Remain in Lifeboat”; “The History You Hate”; “Zero Clowns”; “In the Ground”; and “It’s Beautiful Here”), one from the brilliant Down with Wilco (“The Days of Wine and Booze”), and one from The Minus 5 (“With a Gun”). I’m glad I saw the set, because now I can say I’ve seen them, and I really did enjoy it. However, while the band was solid (Scott’s quite a guitarist, and the rhythm section was top notch), I found their performance to be decidedly unremarkable and confoundingly reserved, and the reason: Peter Buck. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but this guy is a bonafide legend responsible for some of the best music of the last 30 years (that’s right folks, “Radio Free Europe” was originally released as a single back in 1981), and to see him up there, nearly motionless, playing as though he’d shown up because he had nothing better to do, was disappointing.
The Main Event
Tweedy, whose fantastic album, Sukierae, consisted almost entirely of Spencer Tweedy (Jeff’s son) on drums and Jeff Tweedy on everything else (with the exception of some background vocals and the occasional contribution from—wait for it—Scott McCaughey), is fleshed out into a five piece touring band. In addition to Jeff and Spencer, the group consists of Darin Gray on bass (apparently a longtime friend of Jeff’s), Jim Elkington on guitar, Liam Cunningham on guitar and keys (an old classmate of Spencer’s), and Liam’s sister Sima Cunningham on backing vocals. It’s a tight, cracking band that plays fast and loose and beautifully restrained with equal aplomb—this last is particularly important to, as Tweedy put it, rock out to all the waltzes they were playing.
Even with so many slow or mid-tempo numbers in the set, Tweedy is never in danger of losing the crowd or sounding boring. This, I think is attributable primarily to Jeff Tweedy’s understated/underrated showmanship, and his strengths as a songwriter. I would argue quite strongly, and at great length, that he is one of the greatest songwriters of his or any other time. Tweedy’s songs—whether in the early days with Uncle Tupelo, his output with Wilco, or even side projects with Golden Smog and The Minus 5, and songs recorded by Mavis Staples—have an ability to take hold of and speak to the heart and mind in a way that no one has done since Bob Dylan, and may perhaps even succeed on a higher level precisely because of how personal and heartfelt they are while managing to maintain a universal accessibility. These are anthems of loneliness, love, loss, uncertainty, imperfection, internal struggle, and even the occasional, unexpected acknowledgement of joy and fulfillment that is met with equal parts surprise, disbelief, and celebration; in short, the beauty and fallibility of the human condition.
The show was divided up into a full band set consisting of eleven songs from Sukierae and two cover songs (one a gorgeous rendition of “You Are Not Alone”—a song written for and recorded by Mavis Staples; the other an unrecorded song by the late Diane Izzo, “Love Like a Wire”). This was followed by a twelve song Jeff Tweedy solo set—ten Wilco songs, one Uncle Tupelo (a brilliantly played “New Madrid”), one Golden Smog (“Radio King”)—that finished with Spencer joining his dad for “Heavy Metal Drummer.” As much as I enjoyed the entire show, this solo set was the highlight for me, as I think Tweedy really loses himself in the solo acoustic setting, where the power of his songwriting and his warm vocal delivery take center stage. The band rejoined Jeff and Spencer on-stage for the final four songs of the evening, the highlights of which were another song written for Mavis Staples, “Only the Lord Knows,” and the band showcase, “California Stars.”
If you have an opportunity to see Tweedy on this tour, you should. This concert rivaled the quality and power of any Wilco show I’ve seen, and it’s an opportunity to experience Jeff Tweedy in an intimate, all too infrequently utilized, solo/acoustic setting. Also, if you haven’t picked up Sukierae yet, do it—it’s a brilliant.