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No requests, please: Jeff Tweedy.

photo:Martin Benjamin

Stripped-Down and Lyrical
By David Greenberger

Jeff Tweedy, Glenn Kotche

The Egg, Nov. 14

What’s so compelling about the unfolding of Jeff Tweedy’s career with Wilco is how its evolution makes perfect sense, but could not have been foretold. That’s one of the characteristics that separates artists from artisans. When John Lennon sang “I Saw Her Standing There,” no one, including him, could have imagined “Strawberry Fields.” David Byrne’s “Psycho Killer” didn’t shine its headlights on “Once in a Lifetime.” And Tweedy’s Uncle Tupelo endeavors hardly prepared us for an album whose opening lyrics are “I am an American aquarium drinker/I assassin down the avenue.” It’s partaking of these transformations that is one life’s essential thrills.

Out for a short tour of solo dates, Tweedy made his first appearance at the Egg, a venue in which he took some obvious delight. He ruminated between songs about life, his fragile psyche and the room full of 800 strangers peppered with feisty shouters, cracking wise and requesting songs.

Drawing from 15 years of songs, and with a half-circle of acoustic guitars to choose from, Tweedy favored selections from Wilco’s Being There, Summerteeth, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (skipping altogether anything from their debut A.M.). The night’s 26 songs also included a couple of his contributions to the Woody Guthrie “Mermaid Avenue” project, “New Madrid” and “Black Eye” from the Uncle Tupelo days, and just “The Late Greats” from last year’s A Ghost is Born. Interestingly, its predecessor, Yankee, fully opened the door on experimental sonics, but those songs (“I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and “Heavy Metal Drummer”) worked well pared down to one man and his guitar. However, Ghost is more dependent on band grooves and interactions, so he declined to play “Handshake Drugs,” which he’d tried earlier in the tour, citing how he missed the layered guitar freakout it evolves into.

While he didn’t appreciably rearrange the songs, the freedom of not needing to coordinate arrangement turning points with other musicians made for a looser set that also highlighted the power of his lyrics and singing. Tweedy favors both direct phrases (“I made a mistake,” “Maybe all I need is a shot in the arm,” “It’s just a dream he keeps having,” “We’ll find a way regardless”) that deliver a punch because of their ring of familiarity, as well as the poetic (“His black shirt cries while his shoes get cold,” “You are not my typewriter but you could be my demon”). I’ve not heard an audience singing along to such elliptical and literary lyrics since Squeeze played at Proctor’s Theatre 20 years ago.

After Tweedy’s 90-minute performance, Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche joined him for most of the 45-minute encore—essentially a second set. Kotche also opened the night with a half-hour of solo percussion, utilizing sampled and prerecorded tracks along with his trap set, vibes, assorted percussives, wires and cricket boxes. The key thing to note here is that “solo drums” does not mean “drum solo.” His five pieces ranged from an adaptation of the Balinese monkey chant to a cover by Joao Gilberto. All were meticulously arranged and sensitively rendered, and bode extremely well for his own solo album due out in February.

Still Working

The Blasters

Valentine’s, Nov. 12

Despite the relative press hush leading up to the event, the Blasters coming to Albany was one of the more remarkable events of the year. According to Valentine’s owner Howard Glassman, the last time they hit our fair city was in the early ’80s—and that sounds about right.

A lot of historical music streams run through the band; for one, they were somehow entrenched in L.A.’s ’70s-’80s punk scene, despite clearly not being a punk band. (In fact, songwriter-guitarist Dave Alvin would go on to play for X for a time; conversely, X’s Billy Zoom did a short stint with the Blasters.) But the Blasters, as their calling card goes, play “American Music”: A taut, muscular mix of rock & roll, blues, boogie and rockabilly. And it is the band’s stropping power and cigarette-ash and greased-pompadour coolness that drew the punks and everybody else in.

The current unit of the band soldiers on without Dave Alvin, who acrimoniously left in the mid-’80s but returned for a brief reunion a few years back. (The Alvin brothers are right up there with siblings Davies and Gallagher in the combative- brotherhood category.) With Dave, the group lost one of the great songwriters of an era—but the unadulterated truth of the matter, on display at Valentines, is that the group who have soldiered on throughout the ‘90s and right up to our doorstep are an even better live act.

The packed crowd witnessed a paint-peeling, bottom-loaded, tight (tight) attack on Saturday night. The Blasters were as tough and cool as you remembered (perhaps more so). Bassist John Bazz, a sort of James Dean on the L.A. scene in the day, didn’t look a day older, and, appropriately greased for the occasion, held down a snaking, thunderous bottom on a bass flush against his thigh. Leader Phil Alvin flailed pickless at his trademark, tiger-striped guitar, bared his teeth in that horrible grimace of his, and testified to the audience in a soulful street holler that seems poised somewhere between the blues greats and folks like Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent.

But the greatest testament to the band’s power didn’t come with the spate of high-octane Blasters classics (“Marie, Marie,” “American Music,” “Border Radio”); it came with a cavernous, downright nefarious version of Otis Blackwell’s “Daddy Rolling Stone.” Here was one you could feel in the chest, a mighty wallop of a tune, with the band occasionally stopping on a dime before the knockout punch. Here, Alvin—eyes back in his head, a barrage of spittle spraying from his pie-hole—proved himself one of the great living blues shouters. Another highlight was guitarist Keith Wyatt’s featured instro “Boneyard,” an ominous slab of graveyard surf. Wyatt—a coyote-lean, long-faced chap who looks like actor Geoffrey Rush’s brother—is more of a blues-based player than Dave Alvin, though he was able to perfectly replicate the early stuff.

The Blasters, ever the working men, did their job this night, and a couple hundred people streamed out of Valentine’s either smiling or shaking their head in wonderment. It felt good to be all wrung out from a night of great American rock & roll.

—Erik Hage

Back to the Future

The Derek Trucks Band, Mofro

The Egg, Nov. 13

I had the extreme pleasure of seeing Cream in New York a couple of weeks ago, and afterward I couldn’t help but thinking, “Geez, after 35 years Clapton is God again.”

Now I’m thinking that Derek Trucks is the new God. Trucks is all of 26 years old, the nephew of the Allman Brothers drummer Butch Trucks, and has been admirably filling Duane’s shoes in his uncle’s band for five years now. When he’s not touring with the Allmans, Trucks takes to the road with his killer band of fusion-groove players, most of whom have been with him since his mid-teens. And what he’s doing with them is simply astounding.

The show on Sunday was a heady mix of jazz, blues, soul, and world styles, incredible dynamic range and virtuosic musicality, and playful experimentation. Sort of like where Jeff Beck could have gone, had he not decided to indulge himself instead in a series of increasingly complex and unlistenable projects.

And the comparison with Jeff Beck is apt. Playing a Gibson SG tuned to an open E and jacked straight into some vintage Fender amps without any effects, Trucks coaxes more sound—more human sound—out of his guitar with just his fingers than probably anybody since Beck. He’ll go intricate, he’ll go fast, he’ll go quiet, then gloriously dirty and rude, all in the space of a few bars. And if Trucks’ band has any precedent, it would be the second Jeff Beck Group, the one without Rod Stewart. Except Trucks’ band has none of the rampant ego problems that ran Beck’s group straight into a wall after two records.

And what a band they were, fluid, intuitive, anticipating Truck’s every nonlinear move. Singer Mike Mattison was masterly and unerringly soulful, even copping a perfect Billie Holliday, right down to the hand gestures and vocal swoops, on “Life Is Crazy (But So Am I).”

A couplet toward the end of the show pretty much summed things up: The band played a drop-dead gorgeous and lengthy instrumental, full of Middle Eastern and South Asian rhythms and modalities, with Trucks yanking the strings and making his unadorned guitar sound remarkably like a sitar. The thing grooved like crazy, even got some noodle dancers going, and then morphed into a medium-sizzle shuffle of Big Bill Broonzy’s “Key to the Highway,” with Trucks channeling Duane Allman by way of Pharaoh Sanders.

If this all sounds complex or retro, it really wasn’t any of that that at all. This is the future.

Openers Mofro played a lengthy set of agreeable and smart Southern Gothic swamp-rock. Bandleader J.J. Grey had a great expressive and growly voice, and this charming tendency to introduce and explain a song when the song was already halfway done.

—Paul Rapp


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