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Tonight, Jeff Tweedy Is Your Opening Act

When you’ve survived rock stardom, secession from a major label, and rehab, how can you possibly up the ante?

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Jeff Tweedy

Photo: Sandro; Hair and Makeup: Lisa Trunda at Ford Artists for NARS; Wardrobe Stylist: Leslie Pace; Clothing: (hat) Optimo Hats

Jeff Tweedy with his 1960s-era 12-string Epiphone Riviera

Jeff Tweedy is playing to a packed house tonight. Literally. Thirty people are crammed into the basement of a stone and brick Tudor in Winnetka to watch the alt-rock icon perform a solo acoustic set.

The frontman for the Chicago band Wilco performs three or four of these private shows a year for charity, and among a certain cult-like segment of fans they are considered the holy grail. As far as musical celebrity goes in this town, only R&B scandal magnet R. Kelly and the globetrotting Kanye West claim more status than Tweedy does.

The privilege of hosting him doesn’t come cheap. The group tonight, a loose collective that includes die-hards from as far away as Texas and Toronto and the 23-year-old fangirl daughter of the couple that owns this house, pooled $28,000 for an auction bid at the Second City’s annual Letters to Santa, a benefit for needy Chicago families.

You would think all this would make for a particularly kowtowing crowd. You would be wrong.

Six songs into the 30-song set, after Tweedy finishes a harmonica-infused, Dylanesque version of Wilco’s “Sunken Treasure,” a woman sitting in the front row expresses her displeasure that he didn’t perform it that way when she saw him at the Vic Theatre.

“Oh,” Tweedy says, a little taken aback.

“No, it was still great,” the woman quickly adds. “It’s just that I love the harmonica part.”

“Oh, it was greatish,” says Tweedy, clarifying dryly. “You know, the more I get to spend time with the people who profess to be fans, the more I think they really don’t like me.” The room erupts in laughter. “In Japan there are girls that are, like, crying—just shaking and crying.”

“For you guys?” the woman asks.

“Yeah, yeah,” says Tweedy, lifting his eyebrows in feigned surprise. “You sound skeptical.”

He starts strumming the start of the next song but stops when a fan gets up from his chair.

“Where are you going?” Tweedy asks. More laughter.

The man says he’s getting a beer.

“OK,” Tweedy says. Then, after a pause: “Do you want me to wait?”

And so it goes like this, well into the night—some three hours in all without a break—half solo show, half standup comedy, with Tweedy patiently obliging requests from each person in the audience (everything from the Wilco classic “Jesus, Etc.” to a cover of Split Enz’s “I Got You”), inviting the more daring fans to perform with him onstage, on keyboard or violin or guitar, bantering with them about their song choices, being cantankerous and sarcastic and other times tender, them hanging on his every word and guitar stroke.

Tweedy is clearly enjoying himself. “Some of these songs are much more poignant in this environment,” he told me beforehand. “You’re really confronted with what kind of impact a song has had on someone’s life.”

But there’s a strange dynamic at work at some of these house shows. “One group in particular, I think they bid on it as a way to put me in my place,” Tweedy confesses privately. “They come to the door and it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s you.’ And they’ll have other musicians they’ve booked and will tell me, ‘You’re the opening act.’ ”

All tongue-in-cheek, right?

“Not really. People invest a lot of time in you over the years, and when they are confronted with the fact that they can’t control you, that they can’t keep you from getting old, can’t keep you from getting fat, can’t keep you from losing some of your hair, or that they can’t keep you from making music that isn’t exactly what they want to hear, maybe it’s not a completely conscious phenomenon, but I do sense resentment from certain types of fans, yeah.”

* * *

More summer music content:
Summer Music Calendar | Pitchfork vs. Lolla Smackdown | Talent Spotting | Jeff Tweedy at Middle Age
Chicago’s Next Big Rap Star | Our Q&A with John C. Reilly | 40 Performers Everyone’s Buzzing About


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