When legendary Chicago songwriter Jeff Tweedy, from iconic indie pioneers Wilco and alt-country cult favourites Uncle Tupelo, appeared on an Adelaide stage (28 May) for the first time in almost 20 years armed with just an acoustic guitar, it was to a chorus of cheers and song requests; dozens of song requests.
Jeff shot down all pleas for a departure from the set list with the assurance and hilarity of a stand-up comic, particularly calls for obscure “deep cuts” from his albums and covers of Bob Dylan.
He self-deprecatingly fired back at hecklers with “from here on out it will be a cavalcade of hits… hits… I don’t have any hits”. The persistence of the audience, though, and the diversity of track names shouted out were an indicator of just how prolific his career has been, and how much his compositions mean to his fans.
While Jeff has never penned a single that has topped the Billboard charts, you would have to meticulously trawl through his back catalogue, through B-sides and unreleased demos, to find a bad song; a song that didn’t emotionally connect with someone, somewhere.
As he said in another self-effacing quip: “Writing lots of songs that only one person likes pays really well; you just have to keep writing more.”
Jeff and Wilco excel in writing albums, complete collections of songs, not singles. Arguably their finest was 2001’s 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot'.
The masterpiece was released one week to the day after the September 11 terrorist attacks, and was eerily prescient, with lyrics such as “tall buildings shake, voices escape singing sad, sad songs” on ‘Jesus etc’. That song’s enduring emotional resonance was demonstrated by a pitch-perfect audience rendition from start to finish.
Other cuts from that landmark release, such as ‘I’m The Man Who Loves You’, ‘I Am Trying To Break Your Heart’ and the poignant album closer ‘Reservations’, were also enthusiastically received.
Although 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' may have been Jeff’s commercial pinnacle, his creative talents have never waned, despite a well-publicised battle with addiction in the early 2000s. His solo album, 'Warm', released late last year, with its cheery themes of death, ageing and regret, contains some of his finest songs yet.
His versions of ‘Don’t Forget’ and the cathartic ‘I Know What It's Like’ and the end of the world ditty ‘Let’s Go Rain’ were a reminder to anyone who had switched off from new Jeff Tweedy music a decade ago that the genius is still creating.
If the world’s going to end, there are worse ways to spend it than singing along to Wilco, Tweedy and Uncle Tupelo classics.
An honorary member of the Wilco extended family, Melbourne’s Jen Cloher was the ideal warm-up for the show having recently recorded the follow-up to her breakthrough self-titled fourth album in Tweedy’s studio loft.
A natural storyteller, like Jeff, her set alternated between amusing anecdotes about playing Galaga as a kid in Adelaide and gluing hair to her chest for a video shoot, and stripped back and emotive versions of tracks such as ‘Strong Woman’ and ‘Sensory Memory’.
This was an evening of such tunes that it will live in the sensory memory of all who attended.