The Walker Theatre is Chattanooga feels like it could be some ancillary room attached to a much larger church. The mood is reverent, and the space feels intimate while still allowing for a particularly electrifying energy to easily spread from seat to seat – which makes sense as most of the seats are actually very long pews. It’s the kind of place that you walk into and, regardless of where you’re sitting, think to yourself that you can’t believe how close you are to the stage. Which is all to say that it was the perfect venue to catch Wilco front man Jeff Tweedy’s solo acoustic tour.
If you’ve ever had the privilege of seeing them live, you’re aware that Wilco’s show are a mix of folky introspection and fiery rock eruptions, filled with the occasional bit of noise and country twang. As I found my seat, I was curious how the more densely constructed songs would fare under such an austere presentation. Would the complexity be blunted, or would the songs simply become something else entirely?
As I ran through a mental list of songs I was hoping to hear (“Misunderstood,” “California Stars,” “Heavy Metal Drummer”), I thought back to the first time I saw Wilco, which was many years ago at The Bay in Chattanooga, and decided to stop worrying and just wait for him to take the stage. In hindsight, all those questions and dubious expectations were incredibly stupid anyway. Jeff Tweedy knows what he’s doing, even when he’s recovering from a bad case of food poisoning (we’ll come back to that later), and the evening was hypnotic.
First up, however, was Chicago musician James Elkington, a man whose technical skill with a guitar quickly brought to mind the work of John Fahey, Robbie Basho and William Tyler. Throughout his short set, his command of those 6 strings was remarkable, building and unraveling a series of beautiful melodies while recounting a story of taking acid and roaming the woods while listening to Public Enemy. He also made mention of performing in Chattanooga many years ago with Freakwater, a seminal alt country band, although he couldn’t remember where exactly they had played. As expected, a chorus of voices rang out with the names of various local venues.
Mixing extended fingerpicked progressions and complex acoustic arrangements, he articulated a fascinating expression of the instrument’s potential. The lyrical themes were familiar and in service to the music’s needs – which isn’t a slight, just the reality when dealing with such a gifted musician. Each song felt like a canvas, a receptive landscape for Elkington’s complicated musical brushstrokes, while also being intuitive and welcoming for those in attendance.
The theatre reached its capacity shortly after Elkington left the stage, a tide of people flooding in to find their seats in anticipation of Tweedy’s entrance. It didn’t take long for the lights to dim and a figure to walk out on stage. Unassuming and without a word to his audience, he launched into “Via Chicago” from Wilco’s “Summerteeth,” and the room fell deathly silent, eyes cast forward and ears pricked. He sang: “I dreamed about killing you again last night, and it felt alright to me.” With that first line, we were spellbound and rooted to our seats. The twang and reverberation from those six strings, at first plaintive and hesitant, soon found confidence and echoed throughout the hall, an acoustic rush that leapt into our hearts with each line that Tweedy spoke.
It was only after his third song that he addressed us and began a wonderfully warm conversation between songs that lasted all evening. We soon learned that he wasn’t feeling his best, the result of recent food poisoning. He mentioned that he could have cancelled the show but chose not to – and referring to himself as “Johnny Applesad,” he said, “you weren’t going to bum yourselves out.” We were also privy to his announcement that we was wearing his tightest underwear for the show. This self-effacing attitude was evident all night, and it seemed that he eventually settled into a state of semi-comfort as his set progressed.
Pulling from a long history, he took varying detours through his solo work (including the just-released Record Store Day LP “Warmer”), Wilco’s music, Uncle Tupelo’s releases and his Woody Guthrie-themed collaborations with Billy Bragg. And while the songs were stripped to their base elements – Tweedy was armed with just his voice, his guitar and a harmonica – there was a power and emotional resonance in these songs that made you forget the relative simplicity with which they were performed.
There was an affable intimacy to the songs, a lack of pretension that underscored the relaxed quality of his words and music. There was bountiful depth but little emotional (or physical) distance to be found between the audience and the man working his magic onstage. It was an evening for humor, both subtle and broad, and a space where internal reflection was shared among a few hundred people. Songs like “Misunderstood,” “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and “Ashes of American Flags” rang with a particularly reverent tonality, while others like “Let’s Go Rain” and “Acuff-Rose” possessed an energetic spirit that rose above our collective bodies.
One of the highlights of the evening was a performance of “You and I,” taken from Wilco’s 2009 record “Wilco (The Album),” when he brought up someone from the audience to sing alongside him. He introduced the person as someone who had been coming to his shows since she was a teenager and was a Chattanooga resident. It lasted just a few minutes, but the moment was beautiful and spoke to his appreciation for those who have admired and adored his music throughout the past 3 decades.
But these things must end sometime, and the lights seemed to rise in the theatre far too soon. In all honesty, Tweedy could have played for 3 hours, and it would still have felt too short. With the lingering melodies of “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “Passenger Side” still drifting around in my head, I walked back to my car and noticed how beautiful the night sky looked as it spread out above me. I was thankful for what Tweedy had given to me.