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Live Review: Jeff Tweedy, Jen Cloher

23 May 2019 | 2:53 pm | Steve Bell

"A hauntingly beautiful experience."

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There’s nowhere to hide tonight, this music caper stripped down to its barest essence. A plain black backdrop behind the stage, minimal lights, the performers baring their souls armed with just their wits and their repertoire of songs in front of the packed Powerhouse Theatre receding row by row into the darkness before them. 

Melbourne singer-songwriter Jen Cloher is up first and compels from the get-go with just guitar and voice, diving into the contemplative Regional Echo with utter confidence, clearly secure in the knowledge that her songs are strong enough to work in this toughest of constructs. She proves eminently relatable and charismatic even as songs like Kamikaze Origami and Sensory Memory betray confusion and vulnerability, while Fear Is Like A Forest – covered by Courtney Barnett and slacker laureate Kurt Vile on their Lotta Sea Lice collaboration – sounds at home back in her safe hand. She concludes her all-too-brief set with the proud and evocative Strong Woman, a fittingly thought-provoking and empathetic end to a powerful performance.

Jeff Tweedy’s been creating his heartfelt music in various guises for the best part of 30 years now – also visiting Australia to share it with us live numerous times over the past decade and a half – yet this debut solo outing opens up a whole new dimension to the multi-faceted artist. Beginning his set with Wilco staple Via Chicago shines the perfect light on the inherent dichotomy we’re witnessing tonight. When he performs the number with his cracking band, the song builds into a veritable tsunami of noise – avant-guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche leading the cacophony – but tonight, performed with just acoustic guitar and harmonica, it loses none of its power in ballad form, melancholy rather than volume now the driving force. 

It’s only in recent years that the Illinois native has dipped his toes into the solo realms with any real conviction, and next we’re treated to Bombs Above and Some Birds – the opening salvos from 2018’s Warm, his first true solo studio statement – but despite these songs’ unabashed strength, there’s a subtle buoyant energy emanating from the crowd when he returns to the abundantly fertile Wilco catalogue, offering a perfectly nuanced rendition of the achingly beautiful I Am Trying To Break Your Heart that just seems impossibly compelling in skeletal form.

Clad all in black, Tweedy almost fades into the backdrop, unassuming visually but displaying a wry humour between songs that hasn’t always been obvious (“I’m still working on showbiz”, he offers drolly at one stage), and he returns to his roots with New Madrid by his formative outfit Uncle Tupelo – the band who essentially pioneered the modern alt-country movement in the early ‘90s – before segueing into solo gem Having Been Is No Way To Be and bouncing back into the Wilco songbook with the nimble melodies of You And I

It’s endlessly fascinating hearing these songs we know so well in this new light, whether Hummingbird and its whistling finale (described as “jaunty” by the man himself) or the meditative Ashes Of American Flags. The beloved California Stars gets one of the night’s strongest receptions – emanating from the Mermaid Avenue project that found Wilco and their UK comrade Billy Bragg putting music to told long-abandoned Woody Guthrie lyrics – but from there the night becomes almost a de facto Wilco ‘greatest hits’ set to bring things home, the only solo tune Let’s Go Rain an outlier amid timeless tracks in Jesus Etc, Passenger Side, Heavy Metal Drummer, Impossible Germany and the upbeat I’m The Man Who Loves You which finishes the set proper. 

The crowd, which has been so quietly reverential all evening, brays loudly for more – knowing full well how much gold is left in Tweedy’s kitbag – and the singer returns their respect by venturing out for two more tunes, the performance ending with relatively obscure Wilco album track The Late Greats and a gorgeous run through of Uncle Tupelo staple Acuff-Rose. We didn’t learn much tonight about Jeff Tweedy’s outstanding musicianship and songwriting skills – we already knew all about that, or should have done – but we did discover a lot about him as a person and realise that irrespective of the setting, much of a performance’s power can be traced back to the song itself. A hauntingly beautiful experience.