Sunday, July 7, 2013

Stage Banter: Jeff Tweedy

[purchase Sunken Treasure, which includes more Tweedy banter]

The theme this week is Stage Banter. I know that when I go to a concert, I like it when the performer talks to the audience—it makes it seem like he or she is having fun, and we often learn something about the artist. Of course, some performers are better at this than others. Some performers readily regale the audience with stories and anecdotes and some drop amusing quips but others simply seem to have trouble even telling you the name of the song or introducing the band.

A few weeks ago, I attended the Clearwater Festival on the Hudson River, and for the most part, the music was memorable. But I also know that my experience was improved by hearing Judy Collins’ tales about the various protest marches she participated in and her arrests, or how her apartment in New York seemed to host a revolving door of fellow folkies. And Mavis Staples’ stories of playing for Martin Luther King, and her statement that even an injured knee wouldn't keep her from performing. And gruff voiced Jason Isbell asking the sign language interpreter to tell the crowd that he sounded like the smooth, soulful Solomon Burke—and his story about how back in his Drive-By Truckers days, another interpreter just stopped signing when faced with a particularly ribald Mike Cooley song.

It has been said that some comedians say funny things, and others say things funny (note the use of the passive voice, so that I don’t have to find an actual quote), and the same is true of stage banter. Jeff Tweedy is one of those guys who says things funny, and it doesn’t seem like he is trying. It is a matter of timing, of inflection, and of course content.

For those who don’t know, Tweedy and Jay Farrar were members of the band Uncle Tupelo, another of those bands that are more influential than they were popular in their day (which is referenced in the clip). Tweedy and Farrar were high school friends who bonded over their shared tastes in music. After Tweedy joined Farrar and Farrar’s older brothers in a band, Jeff and Jay continued to play together in various groups which ultimately became Uncle Tupelo. That band was best known for its blending of punk with more traditional Americana music (although that term wasn’t around yet). Their debut album No Depression gave a name to the emerging sound, sometimes also called “alt-country.”

Initially, Farrar was the dominant personality in the band, doing more of the songwriting, lead singing and guitar. Tweedy played bass and was, if you will pardon the reference, the “Other Guy.”  As time went on, however, Tweedy began to take a more assertive role in the band. And like so many friends who have one thing in common, it turned out that Tweedy and Farrar really had very little in common. Much has been written about Uncle Tupelo’s split, but based on what I have read, it seems like both protagonists are difficult personalities who have to share the blame. Farrar claims that Tweedy was resentful of his talent and tried to hit on his girlfriend, while Tweedy has asserted that Farrar was domineering, refused to treat him as an equal and even refused to sing harmony on his songs. Farrar quit the band, passing the word to Tweedy through their manager, and a farewell tour resulted in more fighting and recrimination.

Farrar formed Son Volt and Tweedy formed Wilco. Although most critics seem to agree that Son Volt’s first album was better than Wilco’s, since then Tweedy’s and Wilco’s popularity and critical acclaim have outstripped Farrar’s and Son Volt’s. Personally, I’m a fan of both bands, and I think that they have both put out excellent music. Son Volt was even better than I expected at their Clearwater performance, but Wilco has become, to me, one of the best around. Having seen both bands a few times, I can attest to the fact that Tweedy’s stage banter is usually brilliant, while Farrar seems to avoid talking on stage as much as possible.

The enmity and hostility between Jay and Jeff has continued. The odds on a Uncle Tupelo reunion, or seeing, say, Farrar sit in at a Wilco concert, seem unfortunately pretty slim. I was struck by that at Clearwater, where I saw former band mates Jason Isbell and Patterson Hood play together, and I later saw pictures of them hanging out together watching Son Volt from backstage.

Which is all background to the clip, in which Tweedy tells a story of being on vacation in Mexico, and finding out that Farrar is staying on the same beach. I won’t ruin the clip by describing it—as I said, Tweedy has a gift for saying things funny, and I won’t do it justice—but Jeff’s mumbling recreation of their awkward greeting after 10 years of silence is priceless.

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