Of the stereotypes that characterize Los Angelenos, being terminally fashionable in their punctuality is among the most fair and true. They arrive late and leave early, determined to “beat the traffic,” with everything from sporting events to award shows as much a mission to be seen as to witness the festivities.
Concerts are not immune to the phenomenon, and this was acknowledged by opening act Eleanor Friedberger during her sharp set of mostly new material at the Theatre at Ace Hotel Saturday night. The preview of her next album laid to rest any worry that she will have trouble continuing her blemish-free streak as a solo artist. “I have a speech prepared, but I’m going to wait until near the end, when hopefully more people are here,” she announced to a small portion of the ticket holders that actually were there early enough to see Fred Armisen introduce her. She was likely unaware that many more folks were in the building; they just were milling in the foyer listening to a house DJ, waiting in line for drinks and snacks, and enjoying the beautifully renovated theatre’s architecture and artwork.
But for Tweedy, the headliner for this first of two nights, Los Angeles’ reputation was unfairly cast. As frontman Jeff Tweedy, his son Spencer, and their three-piece backing band made their way through the entirety of opening song “Hazel”, Jeff asked at the song’s conclusion, “Is there still music playing outside?” Indeed, no one had cued the house DJ in the foyer that the show had begun, and people remained outside the main room, oblivious to the start of the concert. Jeff shouted an expletive in frustration and then politely asked the audience if his band should just start the show again before making their way through “Hazel” again, this time to a packed room. Jeff even joked that it looked like the first quarter of a Lakers game.
The role of the audience has long been a point of contention in Jeff Tweedy’s live shows, whether playing solo, with Wilco, or with this new outfit that released its debut double LP, Sukierae, last fall. And whether it was showing up on time, effectively singing along during “Slow Love”, remaining in their assigned seat, or restraining the urge to clap percussion during a solo run through the Uncle Tupelo classic “New Madrid”, fans of Tweedy (now more grey-haired than ever before) were tasked with behaving. This shouldn’t be an issue, but if you give a large enough group of people enough $10 cocktails, it is.
Because of this, the tenderness of Jeff’s mid-set solo of stone-cold classics like “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and “Misunderstood”, as well as deeper-cut lovelies like “Remember the Mountain Bed”, proved less effective than the full-band numbers. It’s as if moments of sheer intimacy just can’t be shared with rooms with multiple levels, despite Jeff’s earnestness and commitment to giving long-term fans a taste of their favorites. In crowds this large, there are just too many places for assholes to hide.
More seamless was the dozen or so songs of new material, which, when cast in the light of his wife’s (and Spencer’s mother) diagnosis and treatment for lymphoma, was ever more touching. The final song of this opening section, “Nobody Dies Anymore”, sounded uncertain on record, with the guitar and drums playing like a conversation between father and son. But live, with the Tweedy matriarch in the audience, the song’s mournful tone was more of a bridge that had already been crossed. “I love how every song ends,” Jeff concluded, lyrically capturing the coming sunny day that dries the proverbial rain.
But maybe even better than the live Sukierae run was the moment when the band returned to Jeff near the show’s conclusion to ramble through cover songs from the likes of Neil Young and Mavis Staples. The bold choice to open the encore with John Lennon’s “God” cast Jeff as a songwriter not shy about tackling the big songs or the big ideas, and rightfully taking his place among the very best of rock ‘n’ roll history.
By night’s end, with a closing “California Stars”, any sense the audience had of remaining well-behaved gave way, with fans storming the aisles to dance and sing along. It might not have been the finish that Jeff imagined, but it could have been worse. At least people didn’t leave early. Los Angeles can still surprise you sometimes.