The man of the hour said it all in a single sentence. Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy strummed a simple progression on a battered acoustic guitar, peered out toward the balcony of the Park West, and, in his best Dylan deadpan, sang, “This ain’t no Lounge Ax, people.”
Starting each night’s set with a casual ode written for the occasion of his first solo shows since that club closed in January, Tweedy winked at the world of difference between this classy cabaret and the lovable, shuttered dive that was his home turf.
By comparison, the new venue’s atmosphere was utterly plastic, but offered easy sightlines and bell-clear sound — not to mention bigger crowds. Both shows sold out in advance, with more than 750 spectators (roughly double the capacity of Lounge Ax) filling the house.
Tuesday’s set list favored material from the Summerteeth album, including what Tweedy said was his first stab at a live rendition of “Pieholden Suite”. Thick with strings and peppered with key changes and dynamic shifts in its album version, the quirky cut could hardly be replicated with just an acoustic guitar, though Tweedy’s attempt was admirably risky.
This night he barely scratched the surface of Wilco’s two previous discs, though “Say You Miss Me” and “Pick Up The Change” ranked among the evening’s highlights. He trolled the tidepools of his discography for Golden Smog songs (“Pecan Pie”, “Lost Love”), one Uncle Tupelo oldie (“New Madrid”), and plenty of tunes from both Mermaid Avenue discs (including the spellbinding “Remember The Mountain Bed” and the rollicking “Airline To Heaven”).
The venue lacked Lounge Ax’s intimacy, but Tweedy’s down-home manner was unchanged. He joked with fans, took requests, and told a couple of typically amusing anecdotes about his young sons. (One detailed the particular gifts of Spencer Tweedy’s favorite imaginary superhero who can keep his eyes open underwater — “even soapy water.”)
In a nod to fans who attended both shows, more than half of Tweedy’s Wednesday set list featured songs he hadn’t played the previous night. This time he drew deeply from Being There, banging out a fittingly ragged, electric version of “Dreamer In My Dreams” and closing the lengthy second encore (which included a pair of Tupelo tunes) with the pensive ballad “The Lonely 1″.
Tweedy’s solo appearances at Lounge Ax offered a strikingly intimate view of the workings of a songwriter and performer, developing new material and reinventing the old in a public forum. So it was at Park West too: He toyed with distortion pedals in “Misunderstood” and “Shot In The Arm”, and tossed off covers both familiar ( “Auld Triangle”, “I’m Into Something Good”) and less so (Richard & Mimi Farina’s “Reflections In A Crystal Wind”).
He also played several unreleased originals. The best of these were a whimsical pop ballad that might be called “Alone”, and “I’m The Man Who Loves You”, a delightfully funky love letter that has already entered Wilco’s live repertoire. On Wednesday, two previously unheard songs bookended “How To Fight Loneliness”.