Jeff Tweedy's March 25 show at the Rialto is a three-fer debut. He'll perform his first solo set here, having bypassed Tucson on previous tours without his Wilco bandmates. Openers The Minus 5 perform songs from their March 10 release, Dungeon Golds. And Tweedy's most recent project, Tweedy, with his 19-year-old son Spencer, visits Tucson in support of their September 2014 double-disc debut, Sukierae.
Sukierae? It's a pet name for Tweedy wife and mom Sue Miller, and the record was a family affair—a tribute and a kind of response to the months-long family ordeal that traced her illness through a diagnosis of a rare form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, now hoped to be in remission. Even Spencer's younger brother Sammy is listed in the credits. "He was very forthcoming with his opinion every day on his way to school with my dad," Spencer said in a phone interview.
That the family would generate a band was never a foregone conclusion. Spencer says he never took it for granted that he would play drums for his dad, but he started playing for the joy of it when he was 5 or 6. When he was 7 he started a band with his school chum, guitarist and singer songwriter Henry Mosher. That band, the Blisters, eventually outgrew birthday parties to earn opening slots at some of Chicago's best known venues and festivals. Spencer says they still play together when they're all in town, a circumstance that's getting rarer. "We have done quite a bit of touring for Sukierae. We were actually in Europe a couple of weeks ago. We played some shows in Spain and then the UK. In 2014 we played 40 shows or something." Living the dream. With dad.
Early on, Spencer got a couple of drum lessons, of sorts, from Wilco's Glenn Kotche. "He taught me how to read musical notation," Spencer says "and he also taught me how to drum roll properly." Spencer was six at the time. Today he credits DePaul University jazz master Jeff Fortin, his grade school drum teacher, with honing his chops. "I wasn't really intent on learning the super technical aspects of drumming, but I really wanted to grow as a drummer creatively," Spencer says. "He just showed me different music rhythm patterns from cultures around the world, especially Latin American Cultures." Since then, he says, "I just had an appetite for musical exploration, and not just mechanical exploration of the instrument." That said, he knows plenty about the mechanics, and speaks of them enthusiastically in a recent drum demo for Chicago Drum Exchange.
Spencer's recording debut was on his dad's second collaboration with gospel-pop icon Mavis Staples, "One True Vine." Released in June of 2013, it had wrapped in 2012. Even then, Spencer says, he wasn't expecting his dad's invitation to begin recording the new songs that made their way onto "Tweedy."
That 20-song collection of personal and musical poetry is as diverse as any anthology, but songs are stripped down to an intimate energy, now noisy, now secret, now rollicking, anxious or bantering. Jeff Tweedy told NPR that "Pigeons" is based on a song he wrote as a child, but in it, he could be talking about his sons, "Now that you're older/now that you're grown." "World Away" has an unexpected jazzy/bluesy/Caribbean-y jazz tempo. "Flowering" seems to be about exactly that. There are songs that could be about his wife, and about how important a family is to cling together in hard times. And there is "Nobody Dies Anymore" with a buried tweak about keeping in touch, "Sister don't you know me no more/she calls me once every summer."
Asked how he thinks the Tweedy material differs from Wilco songs, Spencer says, "I think the difference comes out in the recording process." He's referring to the much larger number of players on a Wilco record. But he adds, "I know from talking about it and watching him practice, they all come from the same place. They all start the same way, just with my dad and an acoustic guitar."
Besides light touches of backing vocals by Jesse Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius, just three players are credited in Tweedy's 20 tracks: Jeff, Spencer, and Minus 5 mastermind Scott McCaughey, formerly of the Young Fresh Fellows and R.E.M. Dungeon Golds is McCaughey's tenth album under the Minus 5 moniker, an umbrella for about a dozen part-time collaborators, including Jeff Tweedy. Other Minus 5'ers Peter Buck (R.E.M., The Baseball Project), Linda Pitmon (The Baseball Project, Golden Smog) and Michael Giblin (The April Skies) will join McCaughey for the opening set at the Rialto show. Per the press release, "Dungeon Golds includes 12 tracks culled from three of the five-LP-only limited edition (750 copies) Record Store Day 2014 boxed set, Scott The Hoople In the Dungeon of Horror." Nerd alert: Collect them all!
On the phone, Spencer Tweedy seems chill to the bone, as nice and easy-going as it gets, and likely always a "refugee/ of the very high strung," as in the Tweedy song, "Low Key." "That's a really fun song," he says, "a definite stand out for me." It's a little hard to figure, then, how he mustered the passion to take on such an icon of American music as Neil Young. He led off a recent article for the Talkhouse blog, an online salon for musicians talking about music, by referring to Young as an “out of touch motherfucker” as compared to “Run the Jewels 2,” which he calls “the modern face of protest.” It must be said that, an articulate blogger since age 12, he defended the hell out of it.
Asked if the audience might expect any covers in the Rialto set, he mentions a song by the late Diane Izzo, a Chicago singer-songwriter, and songs from the albums his father produced for Mavis Staples. “I’m trying to think,” he says. “We’ve done Neil Young, lately.” It’s Young’s opinion-free 1969 country weeper, “The Losing End.”