Just four months after his band joined Bob Dylan and My Morning Jacket for an American roots-rock extravaganza at the Usana Amphitheater, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy returned to Salt Lake City on Friday night for a much more personable and unpolished set of music culled from more than two decades of songwriting.
Alone on a bare stage with only an acoustic guitar, Tweedy’s stripped-down presentation of mostly Wilco classics went over well with an eager crowd at Kingsbury Hall.
As Wilco’s main songwriter, Tweedy isn’t afraid to let the band’s songs take on new personalities beyond the sonic identities people are used to hearing on the records. His rendition of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” for example, came injected with a swagger and playfulness that made it sound entirely different than the hungover melancholy of the original.
The same goes for Tweedy’s performances of “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” and “At Least That’s What You Said,” both of which traded in bombast for warmth. If the pleasure of listening to the original recordings of those songs is finding the beauty that lies beneath the noise, there’s also something to be said about Tweedy’s choice Friday night to extract the songs’ cores and lay them bare onstage.
Tweedy also reached back to his pre-Wilco days, playing the Uncle Tupelo songs “Laminated Cat” and “Acuff-Rose,” a song he reserved for the encore.
At times, the mostly gracious crowd had to endure a few moments of prolonged heckling from certain audience members who mistook Tweedy’s quick-witted banter as an open audition for an unfunny sidekick, but Tweedy kept the show going smoothly by shutting the hecklers down when he needed to. After one exchange with some guy yelling about “the abyss,” Tweedy got the crowd back on track by wryly asking: “You guys all hear that, too, right?”
Despite the interruptions, Tweedy showed a gift for engaging a venue full of people with just his voice and his songs. It was impressive to hear how quiet the hall got during Tweedy’s haunting rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “Remember the Mountain Bed.”
Those quiet moments were often broken up with some humor, mostly—and deceptively—at the expense of Tweedy himself.
“You can tell there’s a lot missing from these songs,” Tweedy joked before playing an endearingly messy version of “Hummingbird” that included his strained whistling in place of a fiddle. Sure, it wasn’t the best version the crowd full of Wilco fans had ever heard, but Tweedy’s self-effacing sense of humor created a relaxed atmosphere that forgave imperfection and embraced sincerity.
Throughout the night, Tweedy often hinted at feeling inferior without the rest of his bandmates onstage. But Tweedy has every right to be a confident performer on his own, secure that even without a stage band as revered as Wilco behind him, his songs have the power to speak for themselves.