Leroy Bach ignored the stage and microphones to stand on the floor with his guitar, under a pasteboard cutout portrait of Abe Lincoln and Christmas lights strung among the ceiling fans. He chattered and sang to those seated at tables and standing about as one would to family and friends.
In the back room of the Hideout, there’s no reason to be more formal; the homey ambience lends itself to artists’ being themselves, trying new things and, at least for an evening, breaking free of whatever institutional identity may have befallen them. So it was that Bach and Jay Bennett, better-known for their roles playing keyboards and guitars with Wilco, performed solo sets of their own compositions on a Wednesday night.
Bach’s songs, like his patter, were laced with engaging wit, from an amusing sea chantey-like fantasy involving a mermaid, to a ninth-birthday song in which it’s clear the singer isn’t especially impressed with Dad’s new girlfriend, to a John Deere tractor song in which he trains farm animals to do common chores. Later, Bach passed a camera around, encouraging audience members to photograph each other for a friend’s album cover.
Bennett, the technology maestro behind Wilco’s recent tour de force Summerteeth, took the stage next with an acoustic guitar and a stunning bass voice that seems to arise from some subterranean aquifer. Naming neither songs nor collaborators, he ranged through a set including songs co-written with Woody Guthrie, Australian Sherry Rich (with whom he has recorded), and Ed Hargrove, a hometown guitar chum from Champaign, Illinois, who accompanied him for a few songs.
While researching Mermaid Avenue, Wilco’s collaboration with Billy Bragg on Guthrie songs, Bennett apparently selected some additional lyrics from Guthrie’s archives. Accompanying himself on keyboard, he performed two of these tunes: one a quasi gospel song with the refrain “washed in the blood of the lamb,” the other almost the opposite — “Damn Your Eyes”, a chillingly detailed, ten-verse account of the raw thoughts of an unrepentant murderer at the gallows.
Bennett also performed his own “My Darling”, recorded on Summerteeth, and “Feels Like California”, recorded by Courtesy Move, a side-project of Bennett and fellow Wilco members John Stirratt and Ken Coomer. A standout was “Puzzled Heart”, a song Bennett co-wrote with Rich that is featured in the independent film Invisible.