Jeff Tweedy of Wilco at the Orpheum Theatre

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I will not hope Wilco breaks up.
I will not hope Wilco breaks up.
I will not hope Wilco breaks up.
I will not hope Wilco breaks up.
I will not hope Wilco breaks up.

Perhaps it's pathetic that any music critic would have to re-affirm his interest in seeing his favorite band stay together through Bart Simpson-style repetitive writing exercises, but I can't help it. Jeff Tweedy's solo performance at Phoenix's Orpheum Theatre Sunday night was that damned good. So damned good that I want to see another one -- much more than I want to see any Wilco show.

There are technically still three days left in 2009, but I feel comfortable naming Tweedy's one-off as Phoenix's "show the the year." It was a special night: an intimate, extemporaneous and heartfelt performance at a gorgeous venue. There were many, many memorable moments.

Maybe the show's timing and ties to the Tweedy family, some of which is located out here in Arizona, helped set the tone. Tweedy's wife and sons were in the audience, as was his big sister and a cadre of her friends he joked about making up half the crowd. The show was, Tweedy claimed, a way to pay for his family's visit to his sister's house for the holidays and whether or not that's true, there was an unusually joyous vibe for a concert, and Tweedy was in great spirits.

Problem is, the show was more than just incredible, it was also a little too nostalgic for Wilco fans like me who have been around since the band had an exponentially simpler sound. As Tweedy opened with the brooding "Sunken Treasure" I couldn't help but remember that this is a little like what Wilco sounded like on the Being There tour. And I sorta miss it.

I will not hope Wilco fires Nels Cline.

I will not hope Wilco fires Nels Cline.

I will not hope Wilco fires Nels Cline.

Honestly, I could never pass on seeing someone as gifted as Wilco's current lead guitarist, Nels Cline. He's a true virtuoso who has drastically changed the band's sound since joining for 2007's Sky Blue Sky. Despite the fact that the last two Wilco shows I've seen in person (including the Tucson show in June) have been disappointing, I've heard bootlegs (ahem) that suggest the band is capable of truly transcendent performances with Cline. But Cline is also, for better or worse, a major distraction. His noodling is brilliant, even to people like me who are generally opposed to jammy guitar solos, but he's quickly become as prominent as Tweedy himself.

Consciously or unconsciously, Tweedy has been hiding himself behind a Cline-created wall of noise, which has dampened the band's live appeal, at least when compared to the elegant simplicity of "Tweedy and six acoustic guitars" show we saw last night. When you've got a front man like Tweedy you don't need a massive pedalboard, which is something it'd be easy for Wilco fans to forget.

The evolved Wilco is great -- and I'd almost certainly be bored of the band if it had not grown as it has -- but as Tweedy played "Bob Dylan's 49th Beard," a Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-era song that's become a staple of his erratic solo shows, it was hard not to dream of more moments like this.

And less moments like the obligatory "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," a song that a few belligerent audience members called out for several times but which has no conceivable purpose in a solo acoustic set since it's, ya know, a spacey nine-minute jam built around loops and a semi-nonsensical guitar solo. Who the fuck wants to hear that played acoustically instead of, say, another song like the cover of the Handsome Family's seasonally-appropriate "So Much Wine?"

Spinning yarns about his holiday trip, and cracking wise about his sister, Tweedy was affable with killer comedic timing. He was also game when the sold-out crowd, aided by the theater's perhaps too-kind acoustics, heckled him with incessant song requests and questions about instruments he doesn't play (the banjo) while neglecting their duty to sing "woooo-ewww, heeeeeey" during the chorus to "Heavy Metal Drummer."

Seemingly every song had a special touch. Tweedy dedicated "You and I" to his wife Susie with a sweet, bumbling introduction, made a completely expressionless face during the "you just smile all the time," refrain to "How To Fight Loneliness," and busted out the distortion pedal ever so briefly at the end of Summerteeth's "In A Future Age."

And, like any truly perfect show, the end was the peak. Not the technical end, which was the obligatory "Acuff Rose," an Uncle Tupelo song Tweedy likes to end his solo shows with, but with the second to last offering, "Someone Else's Song."

Like "Rose," it was played from the front of the stage without amplification since the PA is supposed to be shut off early at the city-owned theater, and maybe my excellent seat (fourth row) gave me a little extra advantage over the folks in the back, but the amp-less version was truly a magical moment for me.

I can't tell you anything you don't already know.

I keep on trying, I should just let it go.

I keep on singing, you're eyes they just roll.

It sounds like someone else's song from along time ago.

13 long years -- years filled with not only lineup changes but two distinct genre-shifts -- after the song was released it sounded a little trippy to hear Tweedy sing "Someone Else's Song." In truth, the title could probably apply just as easily to The Old Jeff as whoever it was originally intended to be.

I am fine with that.
I am fine with that.
I am fine with that.

Critic's Notebook:

Last Night: Jeff Tweedy at the Orpheum Theatre.

Better Than: Any other concert played in Phoenix in 2009.

Personal Bias: Extreme and admitted, though totally justified.

Random Detail: At a Pittsburgh Wilco show in 2002 I once did a little heckling myself, yelling "Gram Parsons" after the "And I sound like what's-his-name" line in "Someone Else's Song." It seemed funny to me at the time.

Further Listening:

By The Way: Attention Jeff Tweedy's sister: You are responsible for making this an annual tradition. Lure him out here for Christmas every year and we'll fill the Orpheum for you. Everyone wins. If you need help I'll hook you up with the recipe for this year's smash-hit Christmas enchiladas that'll hopefully lure my family back out here in the years to come.

One more thing: Considering it came out on Christmas eve you may have missed the feature we ran advancing this show, which is one of my favorite New Times stories of the year. Please, do yourself a favor and read "Being Jay Bennett."

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