Jeff Tweedy has always treated his solo tours as getaways from the art machine that is Wilco. Last night, his intimate outing in Overture Center's Capitol Theater seemed to be just that. He even took a vacation from the mikes for the last two songs. That's when he grabbed a steel guitar, stepped all the way out front, and sang "Walken" from the mercurial Sky Blue Sky album.
Tweedy shook his head no when the crowd started to clap in time. Good thing because we never would have heard him otherwise -- and there was a lot to absorb in the silence of the theater. Tweedy's voice was a shrill shout down the mine shaft one measure, a whispered falsetto the next. His big hands stroked fat notes from the unplugged steel guitar.
"That's what a concert would sound like if there were no unions," he quipped to the crowd's pleasure. Madison's political unrest was a theme he sparred with the entire 25-song set. "How you doing?" he asked in a tone one uses when asking about a friend who's very sick. "I'm concerned about you." He shared that his dad was a 46-year union railroad man. For a moment he walked a dangerous line between banter and pandering until he was saved by a request. Someone called out "The Ruling Class," and he eagerly delivered the song from his Loose Fur side project.
Requests became a theme of their own, particularly when "Freebird" was called for a third time. He shook his head in disbelief. "No artist should withstand three Freebird requests in one show unless they're in Lynyrd Skynrd," he said. "Sorry man," came the voice of the culprit in the audience which caused Tweedy to grin. "It takes a big man to apologize," he said, and then flew into "Radio King."
Tweedy dug deep into his catalog, his set list as fluid and extemporaneous as his between-song patter. "I'll Fight" popped up halfway through. "Jesus, Etc." was played more sweet than sour. People passed on his invitation to sing along, which was just as well, but Tweedy more than once teased the crowd for its shyness.
He got the audience fluttering hard during "Hummingbird" and praised its "earnest attempt" at whistling along. He strummed hard during "The Late Greats," the upper register of his Gibson sounding like cymbals. A campfire rendition of "Passenger Side" was a highlight of the seven-song encore.
Throughout the night, Tweedy's comic side brought to mind deadpan artist and fellow Chicago icon Bob Newhart. "Oh, great," he said late in the night, when the audience threw the show in neutral by calling out requests. Titles rained down for nearly 30 seconds, one after the next after the next in a roar of song names. He shook his head and laughed. "Once again I've chosen all the wrong songs."