Last year, local guitarist and Bob Dylan’s band leader Charlie Sexton said to me: “A band is only as good as its drummer.” If Sexton’s words are true, Jeff Tweedy is in good hands with his son Spencer maintaining his backbeat.
I first wrote about Spencer last year when his band the Blisters, which he started when he was 7, released their record, Finally Bored.
I felt when I heard Spencer play that he’d eventually make his way into rock & roll record books – not for lineage but for talent. His drum-centric genius rings through on the most recent Mavis Staples record, last June’s One True Vine, which his dad recorded and produced. That proficiency only escalates when you see him back Tweedy, the Wilco staple’s solo offshoot, which came to Austin last weekend for two shows: a Friday Austin City Limits taping at the Moody Theater, and Saturday’s sold-out showcase at the Texas Ballroom, a performance that doubled as the 35th anniversary for the Cactus Cafe.
The night was pure magic, filled with the fervency that only playing with old friends and family to an audience that cherishes you can bring. KUT Music Director Jeff McCord opened the show by asking the audience to turn off their cellphones, and they largely stayed away. It was quite wonderful to not have distracting little cameras post up everywhere. The audience was focused on the moment – not on trying to capture what was happening on a smartphone.
Many times those fans shouted “I love you.” Tweedy would respond with: “Well, I respect you.” By the end, he’d been won over, and went from “If I knew you better I might love you” to “I guess I love you, but maybe not as much as you love me” to straight up “I love you. too.” Tweedy played half the show with his band, then half of the show solo with an acoustic guitar, bringing his band back for two songs to close the set. Spencer sat center right behind his father. The new Tweedy songs are percussion heavy, spotlighting Spencer’s immense gift for drumming.
After the first few songs, Tweedy remembered that Uncle Tupelo had played the Ballroom way back and asked if anyone had been at that show. There were indeed some hollers. He said when Uncle Tupelo played that the room was empty – most of the crowd was at the bar. Now playing to a sold-out house, was “revenge,” to which the crowd delighted in applause.
Onstage, it was obvious how well it fits to have Spencer drumming by Tweedy’s side. The interplay between father and son is endearing. As someone who often plays music with his own dad – in my case, the guitarist Jon Dee Graham, I know that there’s nothing quite like two generations singing together and having the audience absorb it.
This band is full circle for Tweedy. When the 46-year-old introduced the outfit, he told the story of discovering Spencer’s anticipated birth. He was in Los Angeles doing press for the first Wilco record, and his wife, Susan, called to tell him that she was pregnant.
“Great, that’s just what I need,” he said.
The elder’s jokes and onstage ribbing were often directed toward his kid: “You’re adorable,” he offered once. “Spencer, this is why you don’t talk into the mic,” he said later in the show. Tweedy also has his childhood friend Darin Gray playing bass, as well as guitarist Jim Elkington and keyboardist Liam Cunningham, whom Tweedy described as “also his son but with a different mother and father.”
Tweedy finished the night by bringing the band back onstage for Mermaid Avenue staple “California Stars” and Doug Sahm’s “Give Back the Key to My Heart,” a song Tweedy first sang as a member of Uncle Tupelo. “Sing along,” he urged. “If you don’t know this song, you don’t belong in Texas.”
His attention turned local at the finale: “Congratulate yourselves on Austin being this cool for so long, for this many years as a cool place for musicians to play,” he said. “Don’t fuck it up!” With that, they were out and on the road to the next show.
After the band left, I took pause to consider the tone of Tweedy’s warmth and comedic timing at key moments throughout his performance. He had the crowd in the palm of his hand, entranced by his every note and word.
I was further struck by how full Tweedy’s presence as a solo act proved: he pulls a full-on one-man rock show with nothing but an acoustic, which I haven’t seen from most guitarists who aren’t my dad. I was sure the ghosts of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie were in the room given the folk nod of truly playing to the people Saturday, and felt the hair on my arms rise when, with a mere breath of a phrase, he had the audience singing along – to the chorus on “A Shot In the Arm,” or a new one built around “Slow love is the only love.”
Throughout the set Tweedy thanked the audience for listening to the new songs,:“Thank you for the warm welcome,” he’d say. “Thank you. Thank you.” I say thank you to the Tweedys for sharing a remarkable performance with Austin. And get ready. You’ll be hearing more and more from the phenomenal Spencer Tweedy.
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