Five Jeff Tweedy songs that will break your heart

Published December 6, 2013 1:28 pm
Music • Frontman of Wilco slated to perform solo show at Kingsbury Hall.
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Jeff Tweedy has a catalog of songs so vast that someone could reasonably estimate that he is 100 years old.

The Bellevue, Ill., native is 48.

He seems much older because he, along with Jay Farrar, pioneered alt-country in the early 1990s before tensions between them led to an acrimonious split, with Farrar forming Son Volt and Tweedy creating Wilco.

Since 1995, Tweedy's Wilco has become America's answer to Radiohead, with an evolution of its sound that began as country-rock and now can be described as progressive alt-rock. And in this sense, "progressive" is not a bad word.

Throughout his career, Tweedy has been prolific with side projects, including working with alt-country supergroup Golden Smog and producing work for icons such as Mavis Staples. Not least, he was part of the inspired pairing with British folk singer Billy Bragg in the late 1990s when Woody Guthrie's daughter gave Wilco and Bragg unprecedented access to Woody's journals containing hundreds of song lyrics — but no music.

Tweedy will perform a solo show at Kingsbury Hall on Friday, Dec. 6. Here are five songs that we hope he will play. Not all of them are solely written by him, but all show off the disparate parts that have made Tweedy and his rasp compelling for more than two decades.

"Black Eye," from Uncle Tupelo's 1992 album "March 16-20, 1992"

With the most uninspired but most appropriate album title in modern music's history, the three members of Uncle Tupelo gathered for five days with producer Peter Buck, the guitarist of R.E.M. Buck lent the band the mandolin R.E.M. used for recording "Losing My Religion," and Uncle Tupelo put down acoustic takes on traditional folk songs (such as "Moonshiner" and "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down") as well as original songs. Although Farrar was the group's leader, Tweedy contributed 3 ½ songs, including the 2-minute, 19-second "Black Eye," which told a simple story that 10-minute narrative songs couldn't match for melancholic insight. Sample lyrics: "Black eye / When he realized / That this one was here to stay / He took down all the mirrors in the hallway / And thought only of his younger face."

"Passenger Side" from Wilco's 1995 album "A.M."

When Tweedy left Uncle Tupelo to start his own band, most people expected the debut album to feature a blend of country with rock, and "A.M." delivered. What some didn't expect was a side of humor, which Uncle Tupelo had always lacked — singing about the sorry plight of coal miners doesn't invite guffaws. The narrator of the song is a drunk passenger in a car because his license has been suspended for DUI. Sample lyrics: "Hey, wake up, your eyes weren't open wide / For the last couple of miles you've been swerving from side to side / You're gonna make me spill my beer / If you don't learn how to steer."

"Please Tell My Brother," from Golden Smog's 1998 album "Weird Tales"

Members of bands such as Big Star, the Jayhawks and Soul Asylum collaborated with Tweedy and others on this album from the supergroup. But the most affecting song came from Tweedy alone, on an acoustic guitar, and is over in just 130 seconds. It tells the tender story of a homesick musician who isn't afraid of telling his mother that he misses and loves her the most. Sample lyrics: "Please tell my brothers I love them still / Over the mountains on their phone bill / I should call more often but they know I never will."

"Remember the Mountain Bed," from Wilco & Billy Bragg's 2000 album "Mermaid Avenue Vol. II"

The words were written by Guthrie between 1939 and 1967, but never set to music before the legendary folk singer died. Nora Guthrie, who curates her late father's work, gave Wilco and Bragg hundreds of lyrics, and both wrote new, contemporary music for them. Among many beautiful songs that offered a new perspective on the man most famous for Dust Bowl ballads and "This Land Is Your Land" was this ode to a long-ago love and youth. Guthrie never wrote more poetic lines, and Tweedy's voice and music blended poignancy and winsomeness seamlessly in this epic, stripped-down tune. Sample lyrics: "Do you still sing of the mountain bed we made of limbs and leaves? / Do you still sigh there near the sky where the holly berry bleeds? / You laughed as I covered you over with leaves / Face, breast, hips and thighs / You smiled when I said the leaves were just the color of your eyes."

"I am trying to break your heart" from Wilco's 2002 album "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot"

The song opens with the nonsensical lines "I am an American aquarium drinker / I assassin down the avenue," accompanied by out-of-tune bells and alarms and other sounds that don't seem to fit. It is the opening song of this game-changing, adventurous album. The story goes that Wilco's record label rejected the unorthodox, often-dissonant album because it wasn't commercial enough. The label released the band from its contract, and more than 30 labels, attracted by the lure of forbidden fruit, bid on the album. It is nothing like what the band had released before, but the album, and this song — which could be a love song, or a song about self-loathing, who knows? — rewards repeat listens and foreshadows the band's challenging music in the ensuing decade since. Sample lyrics: "I want to hold you in the Bible-black predawn / You're quite a quiet domino, bury me now / Take off your Band-Aid because I don't believe in touchdowns/ What was I thinking when I said hello?"

Jeff Tweedy

When • Tonight at 7:30

Where • Kingsbury Hall, 1395 E. Presidents Circle, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $35 at SmithsTix



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