"I got blue, and things got weird, and I started growing Bob Dylan's beard," sang Jeff Tweedy during the first of his two performances at Manhattan's Tribeca Performing Arts Center. A quick appraisal of the perpetually bedheaded Wilco frontman—burst of fuzz on his chin—indicated that, yes, he did in fact resemble the bearded Mr. Zimmerman circa Nashville Skyline. More though, the 38-year old Tweedy recalled the pink-faced Dylan of the pre-electric peak, working the stage with Charlie Chaplin timing, sweetly laconic sarcasm and masterfully surreal songs rooted deep in the folk tradition.
Though the Tribeca Performing Arts Center—a lecture hall/auditorium at the city's community college, replete with folding desktops at each seat—held only 900 people, Wilco's last Manhattan gig (and, presumably, its next) was at Madison Square Garden. Tweedy’s devoted fans cheered for every slight smile as he bantered playfully with them. The best way to get him to play something, he informed, was to tell him not to play it.
"Don't play 'Passenger Side!'" an audience member shouted for A.M.'s drunken anthem.
Tweedy squinted. "The darkness is so weird," he said, describing what it was like to stare out at the stagelight-induced abyss. "That could've been in my head!" He entered into a dialogue with himself. "Don't play 'Passenger Side.' Alright." ("And then the Abyss got belligerent," he added later, as the requests piled up.)
"Passenger Side" or no “Passenger Side,” the crowd cheered equally for nearly every song in the hour-and-a-half performance, which favored the songwriter's considerable body of arcana over songs from proper Wilco albums. He drew numbers from movie soundtracks (Feeling Minnesota's "Blasting Fonda"), collaborations with avant-garde mastermind Jim O'Rourke (an untitled number about a beer/drug-soiled Jesus from the forthcoming Loose Fur album), side projects devoted to setting new music to unused Woody Guthrie lyrics (Mermaid Avenue II's tender "Remember the Mountain Bed" and joyous "Airline to Heaven"), and the songbook of Tweedy's late alt.country supergroup, Uncle Tupelo (March 16-20, 1992's "Black Eye").
The breadth of activity revealed by Tweedy's various projects goes a long way toward explaining the power of the Wilco "hits" Tweedy did play. The latter included the instantly identifiable three-chord/almost-chorusless strum of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's "I am Trying to Break Your Heart," and the intricate John Fahey-influenced fingerpicking of Being There's "Sunken Treasure."
Tweedy was joined for his first encore by Wilco stunt guitarist (and skronk legend) Nels Cline, who'd opened the show with an instrumental set that danced between ethereal and piercing. Playing a dobro, Cline danced between Tweedy's melodies on "Airline to Heaven" and A Ghost Is Born's stomping "Late Greats," attacking the strings above the nut and behind the bridge, urging new sounds out of a very old instrument.
"Passenger Side" finally made its airing during Tweedy's second encore. Though the singer seemed to express some discomfort at his fans' utter devotion to him, he also openly courted it. He is, after all, an entertainer. Besides, with Wilco's noise-happy (and authoritative) live album Kicking Television on the shelves (shot through with Cline's molten leads), it's hard to imagine Tweedy going any more electric than he already has. As great a songwriter as he is—and he is one of our greatest—Tweedy has accomplished something just as amazing: he’s found his audience. As he sang on his newest song: find him if you wanna get found.