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Damned Yankee 

Tickets $22.50 If there ever was a romantic musical antihero for the postmodern age of rock, there's a strong case for Jeff Tweedy being him. The two-time Grammy winner and published poet has had a career and a personal life full of bumps, detours, disappointments and all-around oddness dating back to the late '80s. Through it all, he's managed to make music that's both wistful and catchy, in styles from alt-country to prog-rock experimentalism. He's been in the Billboard Top Ten and earned a gold record, and he's been junked by a major label -- both for the same album. In the excellent 2004 documentary on his band Wilco, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, he seems gentle, haunted, even hypersensitive -- and last October, he punched a rowdy fan in the face onstage during a gig in Springfield, Mo. He's had widely publicized acrimonious splits with bandmates -- first guitarist Jay Farrar, who went on to form the acclaimed Son Volt, and more recently (as rather painfully documented in I Am Trying to Break Your Heart) with Wilco's Jay Bennett. He's also had recurring problems with substance abuse, depression and crippling migraines that have arguably affected both his music and his band relationships. For more than a decade, though, he's been the No. 1 alternative icon in rock 'n' roll, for lack of a more specific term to describe what exactly it is that Tweedy does. In the end, there's just something about a man with his heart on his sleeve.

For fans who came to Wilco more recently -- specifically, of course, to the breakout weirdness of the Grammy-winning A Ghost Is Born, it's almost hard to believe that the band's roots are not in the spaceways that they travel now, but almost literally down on the farm. Tweedy formed the seminal alt-country act Uncle Tupelo with Farrar in 1987. Their first record, No Depression, took its name from an old Carter Family song, and the band even shared a stage with folk icons Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie. After Uncle Tupelo split in 1994, leaving behind four albums of now-iconic alternative country, Tweedy formed Wilco, the group destined to gain -- in a Radiohead kind of way -- cult superstar status in the world of outside-the-mainstream music. Wilco signed to Reprise Records shortly after forming, and almost immediately, Tweedy's experimental side began to shine through with a more ghostly, shimmery sound surrounding his distinctively high, nasal voice, drawing some Neil Young comparisons. The band also was notable for not pre-writing most of its music; experimenting in the studio and embracing unexpected sounds and mistakes that wound up on tape. Its second release as Wilco, the double album Being There, debuted the new style and was probably the first hint at where Wilco was going to wind up sonically. It's probably also what cemented its indie-legend status. After Being There, though, the band still went on to record and release two rollicking country-folk albums with English political folkie legend Billy Bragg: Mermaid Avenue I and II.

The Billy Bragg projects were followed up by Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which was an artful blend of dreamy pop songwriting and noisy, echoey experiments: songs like "Heavy Metal Drummer" couldn't be more perfect as sonic snapshots of bursting longing and nostalgia, with lyrics like, "I miss the innocence I've known/ playing Kiss covers beautiful and stoned." (As a trivia side note, Wilco was actually almost sued for some samples they used on the album. The recording of the English woman's voice that fades in and out over the ethereal fuzz on the closing track, repeating "Yankee... hotel... foxtrot" was taken from an independent release of recordings from "numbers stations" -- radio bands that play only repeated sequences of numbers and letters, which are generally assumed but not confirmed to be used in espionage.)

It was Yankee Hotel Foxtrot that Reprise declined to release once it was recorded, and got Wilco dropped from that label. Tweedy decided to stream the whole album for free over the Internet instead, which also added to the indie-hero legend. Eventually, the record was picked up and released by Nonesuch Records. Wilco's most recent project was the startlingly outrŽ A Ghost Is Born, which came out in 2004 -- sparse, soaring and experimental, it maintained just enough pop song structure to remain as romantic as all of Wilco's releases, but also genuinely signaled the band's arrival into that other realm it had been moving toward -- with Tweedy at the wheel -- for years.

Tweedy's latest release was this past fall's Sunken Treasure, a performance DVD recorded at five of his solo shows in the Pacific Northwest early last year. It's an intimate portrait of Tweedy in performance alone (as he will be playing at the House of Blues this week), with great performance footage juxtaposed with conversations and travel sequences. As I Am Trying to Break Your Heart showed, Tweedy doesn't hold much back on camera, letting filmmakers record moments that seem incredibly intimate and speaking candidly and articulately about the often bleak experience of being a touring act. And his openness about his darker places-- completely genuine or not -- has always been a big part of his understated magnetism.

click to enlarge After reaching broader audiences in his band Wilco, Jeff - Tweedy is on a solo tour. - CHARLES HARRIS
  • Charles Harris
  • After reaching broader audiences in his band Wilco, Jeff Tweedy is on a solo tour.


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