With two new albums brewing -- one a highly publicized collaboration with Billy Bragg due in June, the other a Wilco record slated for release this fall -- folks may have anticipated that Jeff Tweedy would debut new material when he took the stage recently for an acoustic set at his wife's club, the renowned Lounge Ax. But they probably didn't expect Tweedy to forsake almost all of his celebrated back catalog and fill the great majority of the two-hour show with that new material, launching into one unfamiliar cut after another with little or no explanation.
Tweedy performed with the odd combination of informality and deference that's often reserved for family affairs. As his wife looked on from behind the sound board, the usually effusive showman shuffled quietly through his repertoire, occasionally stumbling, mumbling apologies and starting over like the performance was taking place in his own home. Unfortunately, his folksy etiquette clashed with the beer-and-billiards attitude of the audience.
Energized by Chicago's first warm evening of the year and put off by the array of unfamiliar songs, some members of the crowd lost interest, opting instead to talk amongst themselves and push their way around the packed-to-the-gills venue. Others were simply lulled into withdrawal by the heat and the monotony. When Tweedy finally did get around to trotting out some old Uncle Tupelo/Wilco favorites like "The Long Cut," "Casino Queen" and "The Lonely 1" -- which usually turn into emphatic, beer-soaked sing-alongs -- most of the would-be revelers had been reduced to drooling indifference.
Tweedy noted the crowd's reaction, and grew more taciturn as the evening wore on. When he did interact with the audience, it was to scold them, growling out asides like, "Is anyone still awake?" and "I must not be playing loud enough to hold the attention of all of these people here."
What did hold the crowd's attention -- at least for the first thirty minutes -- was the unique nature of the new material. Raw and plaintive, the songs were more akin to pre-electric Dylan than the belly-busting rock numbers that Tweedy cranks out with Wilco. Tweedy further encouraged comparisons to the original folk rock troubadour as he accompanied himself on the harmonica, an instrument he picked up for the first time while recording with Bragg in Dublin last month. (The pair were laying down tracks for the aforementioned LP, a collection of recently unearthed Woody Guthrie lyrics the two are putting to music called Mermaid Avenue.)
Mixed in with Tweedy's new material Thursday night were a handful of these songs, including the delicate "Hesitating Beauty" and the rambling "Ingrid Bergman." Either Tweedy's recent songwriting has been influenced immensely by his exposure to Guthrie, or those of us present were too heat-stroked to notice, but it was hard to tell the difference between the two.
Perhaps it was the temperature, perhaps it was the mood, perhaps it was the fact that it was his wife's club. For whatever reason, Tweedy forgot that he wasn't, in fact, at home. And even if he were, he would have been a poor host on this evening.