When Jeff Tweedy performs, holding an acoustic guitar with the word "Wilco" painted between the frets, a broad smile spreads across his face. He says he's embarrassed by photos from live shows that bear this image--he's afraid it makes him look "goofy and grinning." But he can't help himself. So often, Wilco's music is the sound of heartbreak sung with a smile, sad words atop an impossibly infectious melody. It might have something to do with the wrenching situation that caused the breakup of Tweedy's former band, Uncle Tupelo, and left him estranged from his old partner and best friend, Jay Farrar. And so he smiles a lot now, as well he should. At this moment, Jeff Tweedy is the principal singer and songwriter of the best rock and roll band in America.
Wilco--like the similarly wonderful Jayhawks, with whom Wilco likely will tour come summer--are the midpoint between the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Replacements, their brash rock and roll linked to country by the use of traditional acoustic instruments such as the dobro, mandolin, and fiddle, and the reliable pedal steel guitar. "Casino Queen" from Wilco's recently released A.M. owes as much to Bill Monroe as to the Stones' Beggar's Banquet (much of which was cribbed from Gram Parsons, via his friendship with Keith Richards).
It is music that defies easy categorization because it encompasses so much--it is as poignant ("I Thought I Held You") as it is funny ("Passenger Side," about a drunk always hitching a ride with a sober pal), and as bluegrass ("That's Not the Issue") as it is pop ("I Must Be High"). And in concert, Wilco performs all of the Uncle Tupelo songs Tweedy wrote, including "New Madrid" and "No Sense in Lovin'" from Anodyne.
Ultimately, what makes Wilco a great band instead of just a good one is the way Tweedy gruffly, beautifully sings his deceptively simple words with the ease of a guy relating tales to a few friends; it's in the way he finds joy in singing breakup songs. And it's the way in which this band--which includes Dallas' Max Johnston, a 25-year-old who has only recently begun to listen to, and like, rock and roll--sounds so natural and relaxed crafting songs that are wide-open and optimistic even when they're despairing.
Wilco performs May 4 at the Sons of Hermann Hall. Kevin Salem and The Old 97's open.