Life is good.
McCabe's Guitar Shop is a wonderful little place in Santa Monica, California, one of the happiest places I've ever been. Everyone in there is always happy. There are guitars (acoustic and electric) and mandolins everywhere, bodhrans and bagpipes and fiddles hanging off the walls in the hallway, concertinas and tin whistles lying about, zillions of music books, records, tapes, and vintage museum-piece instruments of every description proudly displayed amidst sitars sitting in one corner, a mando-contrabass in another and didgeridoos hanging from the ceiling. Coffeepots quietly brew on the counter in front of the instrument repair bench, and there are usually oodles of people just sitting around playing, be there store employees or the students who take classes there. If not that, they've always got great music playing on the stereo.
In the back is the little concert hall, with a seating capacity about 150, where over the past 10 years I've seen some of the best musical performances of my life. I don't think I had been as excited to see a McCabe's show since I ran from my parking place to get in line to see Donal Lunny and Liam O'Flynn from the Irish band Planxty play as a duo back in 1988.
Tonight was up there at the all-time top -- Jeff Tweedy, accompanied by his new Wilco bandmate Jay General Mills Cornelius Walter Bennett. Here's what they played:
If That's Alright *
Black Eye *
Jeff and Jay:
Honeybee (new, a really sweet and happy tune)
New Madrid *
Shoulda Made More Friends (new, guessing the title, bluesy and sharp)
Pick Up The Change *
I Must Be High
No Sense In Lovin' *
Who Were You Thinking Of?
Watch Me Fall (my request!)
Too Far Apart
Jeff and Jay:
We've Been Had
Box Full of Letters *
Give Back the Key to My Heart
The Long Cut (Jay on harmonica)
Should've Been in Love
(Note for guitar players: * indicates songs for which Jeff had a capo on the second fret.)
Jeff came down by himself, sat down, said hi and said, "We'll start with an old one," and proceeded to do the most gorgeous version of "Gun" I've yet heard. It's interesting watching him in an intimate setting like this; on the quiet, contemplative songs, he seems to drop into another level of consciousness, not unlike Kristin Hersh's "thousand yard stare" she gets when she plays. My friend Michael commented "it's almost as if he's stoned all of a sudden".
After "Gun", he said, "I just thought I'd mention that I'm terrified ... OK, I'll admit it! I'll be a man about it!" He asked for request, and a bunch came out; "If That's Alright" was the first, and he went right into it, following it with "Black Eye".
Looking up at all the guitars hanging on the wall, he said, "This is the longest I've ever played in a guitar store! In fact, 30 seconds after I started playing it became the longest I'd ever played in a guitar store."
Then Jay Bennett came down and picked up the black Strat. Jeff said, "Yeah, we got stuck in a two-hour traffic jam today, and had too much guacamole at this Mexican restaurant down the street, so we're both kinda sick ... AND we're having technical problems!" Luckily, Jay's problems with the electric got fixed MUCH faster than at the Lounge Ax show, and they went into a completely new (to me) song called "Don't You Honey Me" ("This one's a lot more fun sounding than those last few," Jeff said). I myself hadn't felt that Jeff's performance was lacking ANYTHING from the first few notes of "Gun", but Jeff was still commenting on how nervous he was. But my this song, he was his old happy self again, grinning while he was singing, and you could tell that he was relaxing and beginning to have fun.
Jay had a request: "Hey, how about 'New Madrid'?" Good idea! It was great, and Jay's backing vocals sounded excellent too. Michael leaned over at this point and said, "This is so amazing!" Jeff commented about how nervous he still was: "This is only the second time I've ever done something like this ... last time was at this really noisy bar in Chicago, and we could get away with anything." That's both the great and scary things about McCabe's: no noise, no clanking of bottles, no drunk assholes, just blissful silence while people listen to great live music. Of course, this is really intimidating for the musicians sometimes; Richard Thompson once commented that he's much more terrified playing McCabe's than he is in front of 10,000 people, and it seemed Jeff kinda felt the same way. The audience was warm and supportive, though, and I think that helped.
Jeff had really loosened up by this point, and was still joshing about himself. "OK, no more self-depre- ... um, deprecating, is that the word? Self-deprecating humor?" Jay said, "No, self-defecating!" To that, Jeff said, "Yeah, that's something Jay knows quite a lot about today; all that guacamole ... " :-)
Jeff: "So hey, are you all right?"
Jay: "Well no, not really ..."
Jeff: "Do you need to run upstairs?"
Jay: "Well, I think I could last another song, but any more than that and it could get real ugly up here."
Jeff: (to the audience) "Yeah, and then you folks would get a show that you wouldn't forget for a real long time!"
Jay laughed, but kinda squirmed a little bit.
Jeff: (pause) ... "Don't leave me, man!" Then, to the audience, "I'd do anything for this man."
Jay seemed to keep everything .... um, in, and the plowed through a few more songs, brilliantly. He kept asking for requests, which was really cool, and to the credit of this crowd almost none of the requests were ... what you might call inappropriate. However, one guy yelled out "GUN!", and Jeff kinda looked askance at him. "I already played that one ... my friend." Those last two words were kinda dripping with gentle sarcasm. :-)
I gotta say here that Jay's playing is really terrific. He takes that black Strat and without even a slide makes it sing like a lap steel. Sick as he was, he was coaxing some great sounds out of that thing.
"Who Were You Thinking Of (When We Were Making Love Last Night)?" was another request from Jay, and it sounded great, with both of them singing. I forget, is this a Doug Sahm tune too? The only people I've ever heard to it were The Iguanas from New Orleans, and that's how I got to know the song well.
For "Casino Queen", Jay finally put the Strat down and picked up Jeff's WILCO acoustic, and this one sounded great. After this, Jay couldn't continue without a break, and scampered upstairs to cries of "good luck!" from the audience. Jeff asked for requests again, and a few more were shouted out, including "D. BOON!" -- "Nope, don't know that one." -- and then, "PASSENGER SIDE!" It was the same guy who asked for "Gun" several songs after it had already been played. "That's the second time you've requested a song I've already played!" said Jeff. "C'mon, aren't you guys taking notes? I thought you were all supposed to be journalists!"
I shouted out "Watch Me Fall!", and got an immediate "Oh, okay ... um, how does that one go again?" I'd have been happy to sing the beginning for him, but luckily it wasn't necessary. :-) He did "Too Far Apart" by himself as well.
Then, "Hey Jay! Are you all right?!" Trooper that he is, Jay came back down the stairs and proceeded with the gig. "Actually," Jeff said, "I kinda wanted to play by myself a little more ... just kidding!"
There was an interesting aside during "Screen Door" -- he changed the lyric from "We all still have a lot of fun, never saw much school" to "We all still have a lot of fun, 'cause we're all fools", and then he said, while stil playing, "God, I hate that stupid line about school ..."
Somebody shouted out one of Jay Farrar's songs (glad it took this long, at least), and Jeff gave him a look like you give a naughty six-year-old, and with a slightly admonishing tone said, "Um, I didn't write that one!" Someone else asked for "Effigy", and he said, "I don't think those are gonna get played". Then came the request for "Give Back the Key", to which he quickly agreed. Then Jeff said, "Yeah, I know Jay sang the first verse of this one on the record ... and I don't care!". They finished with a gorgeous and very country-like version of "The Long Cut" to end the body of the show. Jay came back down for the first encore song, and Jeff finished with "Acuff/Rose" alone.
It was, to say the least, an amazing night. We've all been gushing (me especially) about Jay Farrar's demos for the past week, and now I think it's time to gush about Jeff. I heard the Lounge Ax tape, and it was a great show, but he was IMHO much, much better here. The setting was better -- quieter! He felt more comfortable, he sounded brilliant, and this is the perfect occasion to sit back and listen to how great his songs are.
I don't think it's fair to compare him to Jay (I don't think it's fair to compare ANYBODY to Jay, for that matter) -- they both contributed a great deal to what I loved about Uncle Tupelo, and tonight it was very clear to me (not that it really wasn't clear before) that Jeff is one of the best American roots musicians we've got today. He plays in a rock band, and they rock when they're on stage, but in this setting you see that they're not quite just that, and not quite country but have a lot in common with both. It just feels comforting, and very rooted in the American musical tradition. The great thing too, is that this feeling carries over when they're electric and loud as well.
In a way, it still kinda bums me out that it wasn't meant to be for Jeff and Jay to continue in the same band, but the upside of this show is that now I'm happier than ever about Wilco. They're one of my favorite bands already, and they're only gonna get better. And we'll get yet ANOTHER band soon ...
As for how the evening went, there were a couple of extra treats. First off was getting to meet a fellow Postcarder, Joe from San Diego, who had driven about 2-1/2 hours to get to this show. Great to meet you, man! (And duh, I didn't even get your last name ...) I don't know if there was anyone else from the list there; I should have asked beforehand.
Then I learned something that kinda knocked me out. John Chelew, who runs the concert series at McCabe's, is a friend of mine. First, before the show, he told me that *I* was the one who had turned him on to Uncle Tupelo in the first place; I was not aware of this. He had never really heard of the band until he had listened to me play them on my radio show, and he said that without that it probably wouldn't have occurred to him to try to get Jeff to come and play. Wow ... seems that I might have had something (albeit indirectly) to do with this show coming to pass!!
Then, John said, "I was telling Jeff about this, and how you've been playing their stuff for years and playing the hell out of the new Wilco album ... and he wants to meet you."
So after the show, John brought Michael and me upstairs to the area where the artists hang out before and after the show, and introduced us! Poor Jay was lying on the sofa, curled up almost into the fetal position; he was really feeling sick.
And there was Jeff. He's got a warm, firm, and sincere handshake, and I've gotta say that he's one of the nicest guys I've ever met. "Wow," he said, "I'm glad someone finally came up to talk to us." (They were just kinda sitting in there by themselves.) "It's weird," he said. "There are all these really nice people downstairs who came to see us, but it'd kinda feel like I was in the receiving line at a wedding or something ... 'Thanks for coming .... thanks for coming ...'" :-)
We hung out upstairs and talked for a little while. He was genuinely appreciative about the airplay, and we talked about Wilco, about my radio station, about the Bottle Rockets, and found out that the place where Jay got the deadly Mexican food is a place where we eat all the time. I told him how appreciative I was that he did another gig like this, and that I was glad it didn't take another ten years, like he said at the end of the Lounge Ax gig. "Hey, were you there?" he asked. No, but I wished I was, and I told him -- after a slight hesitation -- that I had heard a tape of the gig. To my relief, he didn't seem to mind.
A few other people came up, including some record-industry guy who gave Jeff some pictures of Uncle Tupelo's last gig in London ("Wow, some great shots of my chin, here ..."), and then gave him a VHS videotape that was labelled "Uncle Tupelo, Mississippi Nights, 5/1/94" ... zoinks! The guy told Jeff, "I hope your mom likes this." You can't imagine how much I wanted one of those Star Trek matter replicators at that moment ...
We took off after 15 or 20 minutes, because it looked like there was some kind of writer guy there who needed to talk to Jeff, and Jeff seemed a little hesitant/embarrassed to say that he had to kinda get to work on this; Michael and I took our leave then. Jeff is a great guy. And if anybody was wondering if he's the kinda guy you'd like to hang out with and have a few beers ... yes, he is. :-)
The final clincher: John said he was going to talk to Tony Margherita and see if he can't swing getting (at the most) Wilco to come on to my radio show for a live performance when they're back in town next month, or (at least) Jeff to come in by himself with his guitar, and play and talk and hang out and guest DJ. We'll see if he can pull that one off, and I'll let y'all know.
I won't forget this night for a very long time.
-- Chuck, counting the days until the Wilco show at the Whiskey on May 12
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Chuck Taggart (e-mail chuck)