Jeff Tweedy will love you, baby

The most intimate, large-scale musical moment I’ve ever experienced came late last night at Jeff Tweedy’s solo show at the Lincoln Theatre.

After he opened with the four Wilco songs I’m most likely to sing alone on broken nights and revivalist mornings… after a gorgeously minimal harmonica on his poem to Chicago, after the song that always carries me back a decade, after my favorite of the songs I heard Mavis sing at the Tiny Desk, after freakin’ Pieholden Suite, after a few mid-song flubs (on Mountain Bed, “it only has nine verses, you’d think I could do this”) revealed his solitary, amused position on stage in a way that could be embraced, after he swaggered and stood to his full tallness to deliver I’m the Man Who Loves You with all the directness the song can absorb, after Stirratt and Sansone of Wilco and opener band Autumn Defense joined him on stage for a quiet but thrillingly expansive encore of At My Window, Sad and Lonely, after all of the Autumn Defense joined them in a heady, lit swing back to old alt-countrydom with Passenger Side and a near-rock, love-junky California Stars, the Lincoln stage emptied but for one and darkened. Tweedy came to the edge of the wood and without his mic or an amplifier sang Acuff-Rose, and the room held its breath.

Early in the morning, sometimes late at night,
Sometimes I get the feeling that everything’s alright.
Early in the evening, sometimes in the day,
Sometimes I get the feeling everything’s okay.

Mavis Staples-Jeff Tweedy fusion

Of the several Tiny Desk concerts to occur at NPR since my arrival, my can’t-miss show was Mavis Staples. Her coming album had Wilco chief Jeff Tweedy as producer, and he’d written two of its songs. When the first, You’re Not Alone, hit Pitchfork, the song was musically strong and subtly, editorially provocative. Like Woody Allen’s writing for the array of characters in Vicky Christina Barcelona, the writing was clearly Jeff, but the voice came across as almost equally Staples and Tweedy.

A broken home, a broken heart
Isolated and afraid
Open up, this is a raid
I wanna get it through to you
You’re not alone

In Chicago terms, as much old-time South Side as modern North Side.

At the Tiny Desk concert, which will appear online sometime (look for it here or follow here on Twitter), Staples sang that song and the other Tweedy composition, Only the Lord Knows. Same effect. Effortlessly half Staples, half Tweedy. You’re going to enjoy the song when you hear it. No preaching here. It’s half inside a church door and half just outside.

Then she brought out CCR’s Wrote a Song for Everyone, an underrated tune (off Green River, where nearly every song is catchy-good) and a CCR favorite of mine (and also on her new album), and closed with a tidbit of the song that ensured her family’s fame, I’ll Take You There.

If you enjoy in any way what I’m telling you, in addition to checking out the Tiny Desk and the full album when they arrive, read Staples’ recent interview with the Metro Times, Detroit’s alt-weekly. The conversation is a long but wealthy one. Her on the new album’s recording session:

And he had some songs that he had chosen like really classic gospel songs ““ two of them that Pops used to play for me when I was a kid. I said, “Tweedy, Where did you get these songs?” One was “Wonderful Savior,” and “Creep along Moses.” I said, “These songs, this is the Golden Gate Jubilee Singers; these songs were recorded before I was probably born. Back in the ’30s and ’40s. You’re taking me back to my childhood.” But I love these songs. I never thought I’d be singing these.

We started recording in December, and this was the coldest winter Chicago ever had. So he gets this idea: “Mavis we’re going to go in the stairwell, we’re going to go in the corridor and sing this.” I said, “Not me.” Man, it’s cold out there. I mean it was freezing. He said, “Somebody get Mavis a cap and a scarf and a coat. Get her some gloves too.”

Update: Good quote for a hot summer day, right?

I’d planned to end the post there until I woke up in the middle of the night last night… or this morning… and found Only the Lord Knows had surfaced at Staples’ Lollapalooza performance yesterday. Also, Tweedy joined on stage for Wrote a Song for Everyone (video here) and You’re Not Alone (video). Introducing the former, Staples says, “You know it’s such a wonderful thing — we’re all Chicago people. Yes, indeed.”

One more thing: The Sun-Times covers the show and sits down with Staples and Tweedy. It’s an enjoyable read. At one point, they talk Gaga. “You just can’t sit on your butt and make Lady Gaga happen,” Tweedy says. “That’s more energy than I got, for sure.” Team up!

Update 8/10: NPR has posted video and audio of Staples’ Tiny Desk.

From that spot, where do you go next?

Claire Keegan’s “Foster” is what you read leaning against the handle of the refrigerator as the water boils and your wine glass gets lonely on the counter. You continue to read the story through the meal and, returning the plate to the sink, as your clothes washer spins off in the hall, then the dryer. Most of the sentences in the story gaze outward but every fourth or so looks in. A line looking in? “I am in a spot where I can neither be what I always am nor turn into what I could be.”

Right now… I’m in search of awesome. That’s what I’ve decided.

Colliding with the above story about a little Irish girl, I’ve posted this similarly (seriously) themed Wilco song before but never this version.

Mono no aware, in Lego, heart and stereo

In the Post story on a YouTube star, now getting requests: “It’s like you are a kid playing with Legos and someone says, ‘Build this house for me.’ And you are like, ‘Oh, okay, I get it. I’m in construction now.’ ”

Last week’s thing was an attempt of sorts to get back to playing with Legos. To get out of a blockquote slump, literally and figuratively, start with a thought and pour all shapes and colors of loose bricks onto the table to see what you build. What results — a baseball park, a North Pole workshop, the house where you stay at the beach — is going to look ridiculous on the table next to the formal, instructed constructions, but at least you remember how to create. You remind yourself you can.

The thought last week was considering heart as distinct from self. The former’s part of the latter, but they’re not the same, not when a mind and body (and soul, as one friend added later) are in there too. Each of the self’s parts also has to live in the world, and the heart, the most involuntary and reactionary of the bunch, has to work hardest to fit in.

The songs sitting in the back of my mind at the time and through the past couple weeks have been two from odd corners of I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, which I finally saw, years overdue. Early in the movie, there’s Not for the Season (lyrics and concert video) eventually released outside Wilco, and I’ve been struggling to interpret it: “Summer comes and gravity undoes you / You’re happy because of the lovely way the sunshine bends / Hiding from your close friends / Weeding out the weekends.” Then chorus: “Candy left over from Halloween / A unified theory of everything / Love left over from lovers leaving / Books, they all know they’re not worth reading / It’s not for the season.”

SongMeanings.net has no great answers on it. Says the most recent song commenter, “This song means to me that Jeff Tweedy is a freakin’ genius.” But another reader points in a direction, “The words are kind of depressing, but there’s a kind of unexplainable hope in there.” It’s attempting to explain that hope that turns up a good try at a meaning. A Stylus piece says of the song, “The eighteenth century literary critic Motoori Norinaga coined the term mono no aware to describe Japanese literature that emphasized the deep impression of time’s passage and combined a serene acceptance of life’s transience with an appreciation of ‘the gentle pleasures found in our mundane pursuits.’ ”

You know this blog and you know me — I like and fight with this idea. In an old posting, it was the almost-quiet of Springsteen’s County Fair that caught my attention one night, walking in late. The annual arrival of the fair and its traditions — known too well, in good ways — are set against the last line (lyrics and music), home and holding the girl in the yard after the fair, “Oh I wish, I’d never have to let this moment go.”

You clearly can’t hold on, but you count on the fair and night returning. There are different verisons of Not for the Season out there, studio and live. I think I like the rock one the best, a beat ongoing. Audio is here.

But onto the other I Am Trying to Break Your Heart song that’s been on my mind, a rare cover: Be Not So Fearful. Mp3 here, lyrics are here, yes.

I haven’t listened to the new Wilco album in a week

Until now, just after midnight Friday, because I owe friends thoughts on it. The ease with which the new album has slipped off my speakers, even after the excitement of the early leak, even with the songs sitting on both home and work machines, has to tell me something. Listening again to the album on repeat at this moment, I find I didn’t miss it.

I don’t miss it. Even when the songs are playing, I can’t feel much of a difference from when they’re not. Where’s the presence? Where are my air instruments and lines? Has anyone seen the hooks? The walls of the music are too smooth. After an initial impression of liking the first half much more than the second, I’m down to one song that’s tactile.

Wilco the Song is catchy but wears like a jingle. Deeper Down is a canon letdown. Bull Black Nova is too ordered. You and I is a misfire. You Never Know is pointless. County Disappeared is boring. Solitare is boring, but in an older Brian Wilson-kind of way. I’ll Fight is useless. Sunny Feeling is going to be good live. Everlasting is — wait, are we done? If the last album ended in On and On and On and the new one ends in Everlasting, how’s the next one gonna end? Forever? Infinity? We get it. The music lives outside album. The beat may go missing, but the drone goes on.

There’s a serious case to be made Sky Blue Sky is a better album. It does loud better. It does soft better. In a head-to-head track battle, I can’t make the math work for (the album). And as album documents? Neither can claim much there. Sky Blue Sky has already claimed “quiet album.” I’m worried that leaves the new album as the forgotten one.

Excluded from the song list above, the only exception in the new stuff, for me, is One Wing. It breaks my heart every time I hear it and is why I’ll buy this Wilco album and whatever Wilco album lands on me next.

I haven’t written anything real here in a while, with emphasis more on real than on writing, and I’m closer but failing again now. Cut to tape.

Milwaukee debates where Wilco put the camel

Yes, the new album cover’s setting is no Marina Towers, but where is it? Milwaukeans have quickly identified the dromedary as hanging out in their hometown. Jeff Sherman at On Milwaukee.com reports:

The band’s latest release features a Milwaukee cover shot on Old World Third Street. The photo, of a balcony, features a camel, tables and Mader’s restaurant in the background. By looking at the image, it seems to have been shot at the building that houses Wisconsin Cheese Mart and Usinger’s Famous Sausage, steps from Turner Hall Ballroom, a sister venue to the Pabst Theater where the band recently played.

In addition, the owners of Wisconsin Cheese Mart tell me this, “Wilco also photographed images of the band inside the Wisconsin Cheese Mart, alongside mannequins dressed in elaborate Elvis-like costumes. It was very cool. The band was awesome.”

Awesome is the correct word. Commenters at ExpressMilwaukee.com note the cover’s font mimics Mader’s as well. But a balcony? How did Wilco get a camel on a balcony? Did they put it in an elevator? Did they push it up a set of stairs? The Wilco mind reels! But a commenter at OnMilwaukee disputes the balcony: “Actually it appears the photo was taken from the sidewalk on Highland Ave. looking south at the side of Mader’s. You can see the parking lot behind the fence and gate.”

The Journal-Sentinel’s Hubbub blog confirms the comment. Photos came on the street and in a parking lot, according to those who passed by.

That’s according to eye witness Melinda Caughill, whose office is on West Highland Avenue. She would have been more excited — if she knew who the band was.

First she asked about the camel. They told her it was for an album cover for a band. They being three members of the band she found out later. Give Melinda a break. She has a toddler and spends more time listening to Bob the Builder than she does music. 

In another report, the birthday cake in the shoot was very heavy.

The shoot sounds awesome, but I’m kind of disappointed they didn’t have to get the camel up stairs. I’m picturing Jeff, John, Glenn, Pat and Mikael pulling in front, and Nels and the Total Pros pushing in back.

John would volunteer for the back but be the most likely to carry sugar cubes in his pockets, so would have to be in front. Nels would normally have front-of-an-animal status, but in this instance he would be the only one with a chance of catching the camel if folks in front lost hold. No one would ride on top of the camel because everyone remembers what happened with Jay Bennett and the donkey.