Jeff Tweedy at the Abbey, June 2002

Daily Herald Music Critic

A benefit for Chicagoans is the chance to see its national music ambassadors performing in small clubs solo or in non-traditional collaborations.

Over the years, tickets for solo shows by Jeff Tweedy have become as valuable as those for shows by his day job band, Wilco.

Tweedy started performing solo at Lounge Ax, then when that club closed, he briefly moved to the Park West. For the past two years, his regular spot is the Abbey, a Northwest Side Irish club recently transformed into one of the city’s busiest homes for indie rock and veteran rockers.

Tweedy headlined the club Monday night, the first of two sold-out shows this week (he performs again tonight). The show are his first since Wilco released its fourth album, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (Nonesuch), this spring.

Doubters wondering how a guy and an acoustic guitar could surpass the impact of a full rock band would have left Monday with their question answered. In many ways, Tweedy’s stripped-down versions of new songs like “Jesus, Etc.” and “Reservations” were gripped with more tension than their fleshed-out counterparts. The bareness often brought the entire room to silence. The song, “War on War,” — as close as we’re going to get to a tune capturing the collective anxiety post-Sept. 11 — in particular built to its climax simply through Tweedy’s exhaustive strumming.

Tweedy has amassed enough songs through his tenure in Wilco, Uncle Tupelo, the side project Golden Smog and his two-album posthumous collaborations with Woody Guthrie to play five nights straight if he wanted to, each with an entirely different setlist. He covered all points in his history plus some unrecorded new songs and a cover, Mott the Hoople’s “Henry and the H Bombs,” such an obscurity, Tweedy said, that when he played it for Mott leader Ian Hunter recently, Hunter admitted he didn’t even remember writing it.

Wilco bassist John Stirratt joined Tweedy onstage for two Guthrie tunes — “Hesistating Beauty” and “California Stars.” Older and more simpler songs — “Casino Queen,” “Passenger Side” — remain group singalongs — but songs about gambling and being stoned without money will do that.

More revealing about Monday’s one-man show was how Tweedy’s newer and more complex songs – “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” in particular – survived without the thicket of electronics of their studio versions and in fact morphed into prickly and strange folk tunes.

Tweedy offered a reason: “I try to play all the piano parts on harmonica,” he said. “But the harmonica doesn’t have the black keys.”

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