Jeff Tweedy was itchy last Wednesday night at the Englert Theatre.
“This show is going to have an asterisk next to it,” he said. “Full disclosure: I’m ‘roided out.”
Turns out he’s allergic to latex gloves, and he was still battling a rash, which gave new depth to his set closer, “A Shot in the Arm”: “There’s something in my veins bloodier than blood.”
Despite this, or maybe because of it, the 51-year-old Wilco frontman was a decidedly warmer shade of melancholy in front of a sold-out crowd at the Englert.
The combination of steroids and the glass Coke bottle he sipped from intermittently throughout the night seemed to give a nonchalance to his performance that you couldn’t imagine him wearing while standing in front of Wilco: breaking songs apart to continue tuning guitars, admitting to parts of his songs that he just “didn’t know what to do with,” calling for sing-alongs to songs that he hadn’t even released yet.
He’s on tour following last November’s double release of his first ever solo album of new music, Warm, and his first memoir, Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back). He’s also announced a second set of new music, Warmer, being released this year on Record Store Day (April 13). While Wilco has been on hiatus since 2016’s Schmilco, (due to drummer Glenn Kotche’s wife Miiri receiving a Fulbright scholarship), Tweedy has only become more prolific, his workingman’s approach to music and writing yielding him three solo albums and a memoir in the last three years.
After a set of head-shaking, seesawing folk music by the mystical Buck Meek, Tweedy came onstage while working through the melody of “Via Chicago” on a harmonica. The show was the first stop on this leg of the tour, which turned the song’s coda (“I’m coming home”) from a declaration into a prayer. Tweedy has always had a way of rendering his lyrics into tinctures, and the evening’s set drew from his 30-plus years of honing the craft.
Uncle Tupelo classics like “New Madrid” and “Acuff-Rose” sat directly next to cuts from last year’s Warm, including “Having Been Is No Way To Be” and “Don’t Forget.” Without the incomparable Nels Cline to nod to on “Impossible Germany,” the tune became a impervious ballad about mis/communication. Wilco’s alt-country rocker “Passenger Side” became a campfire sing-along with the boisterous crowd.
The crowd also supplied some of the vocal parts buried deep in the mix throughout Wilco’s sonic masterpiece Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Tweedy was visibly excited when the Englert erupted into an impromptu chorus during “Heavy Metal Drummer.” One of Tweedy’s best known tunes, “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” became a nimbler, bluer version of itself, complete with the piano breakdown which Tweedy worked out of a guitar he continually kept switching throughout the set.
“You don’t want to know how many guitars I brought,” Tweedy said, after cursing the winter weather for disposing of any chance of a consistent tuning. He was sardonic and wry, calling for questions while trying to rest his voice between songs. Somebody asked who he was going to vote for in the Chicago mayoral runoff election.
“What the fuck do you care?” he good-naturedly bellowed to a thunderous laugh. He also revealed that when his sister called to tell him that Jack Black should play him in the movie version of his life, he hung up on her.
It was tough not to hear some of Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels” in Tweedy’s “I Know What It’s Like” from Warm. But where we find similarities in Petty’s singular defiance, Tweedy invited the audience into his melancholy embrace:
In my window I have a twin
I’m always looking out
And he’s always looking in
I know what it’s like
Starting over again
It’s a familiar image, one he first gave us during “Some Birds,” also from Warm:
In my window, I have a twin
I look out, he looks in
He has a point, I applaud
My goodness, my God
Is it my fault the countrysides
Are so full of suicide?
He encored with four more tunes, including a tongue-in-cheek cover of Labi Siffre’s “Must Be Love” and a new one called “Evergreen,” which landed like a new Tweedy classic, full of urban angst and rural doubt.
“Have you even seen anything evergreen?” he asks.
Wednesday night at the Englert was a checking-in with one of our patron saints of American paranoia. Turns out, he’s unsurprisingly a lot like us: a little bit itchy, a bit exasperated by the lay of land around him, but happy as hell to still find a warm place to unwind his mind for awhile.