Think of Jeff Tweedy. Now think of how the edge of the earth might look: a vast ocean of grass and sky, maybe some ragged mountains in the distance. Now think of Jeff Tweedy playing a solo show there.
That’s just what happened on this night, when Tweedy’s calendar of solo dates at big-city venues took a hiccup and landed the Wilco frontman in Marfa, Texas (pop. 2,424).
“Marfa rules, by the way,” Tweedy told the capacity crowd of 200.
It makes more sense than you might think. Marfa is hundreds of miles from any decent-sized city, yet its austere beauty and formidable isolation are also its appeal. Further, the town has evolved into a genuinely interesting and dynamic mix of ranching tradition and high art. The Tweedy show was brought to town by a cultural arts center called Ballroom Marfa as the inaugural event at their new music space, Liberty Hall, an old movie theater and dance hall where local legend says the devil once danced in Marfa.
With this show, Ballroom proved the hall can be a destination venue. Probably 70 percent of concertgoers that night were Jeff Tweedy pilgrims, fans who had driven or flown for hours, from Dallas, San Antonio, New Mexico, Arizona, for the chance to be close – this close – to their man. “I feel like I’ll get to know every one of you somehow tonight,” he said early on.
The intimate setting and pindrop-quiet crowd set something loose in Tweedy. He started with what he called tender ballads, singing “Be Patient With Me”, Woody Guthrie’s “Remember The Mountain Bed” and the Wilco standard “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”.
His voice was that queer mix of quaver and bravado, familiar and sometimes aching. Still in the mood for quiet songs, Tweedy drifted into Uncle Tupelo’s “Black Eye” and a couple other poignant tunes (“You Were Wrong”, “Blasting Fonda”) before changing gear, demonstrating his significant whistling prowess in Loose Fur’s funny Christ-on-crack rant “The Ruling Class”. He and the audience joshed; a stray comment shouted from the crowd evolved into a running gag wherein Tweedy was given the alter ego Jeff Leppard. Midway through the show, he proposed a reunion precisely a year from now.
He pulled out the twelve-string for “One By One”. And then, a surprise. He asked for requests, stepping away from the mike and singing unamplified and unaccompanied except for the voices of those in the audience who sang with him on “Gun”, “Muzzle The Bees” and “Theologians”.
The spare landscape, the undecorated hall, the singer’s voice unadorned and alone — perhaps the high lonesome of Marfa is precisely what led Tweedy to reach out to his crowd. It was a beautiful, piercingly cold night. Tweedy had one more thing to say before the evening ended with his final encore, Uncle Tupelo’s “Acuff Rose”.
“Honestly, this is the kind of show I feel privileged to play in my life,” he told everyone. “And I’m serious about the reunion thing.”