Smile Politely

Tweedy’s Local Ties

Jeff Tweedy’s path has crisscrossed through Champaign-Urbana countless times over the years. From touring in a van with Uncle Tupelo to recording Mermaid Avenue, Vol. 1 with Wilco, to tomorrow night’s solo appearance at Foellinger Auditorium, Tweedy has spent enough time here to form strong friendships and make even stronger first impressions. After the jump, see what four folks with ties to C-U remember about the good old days with Jeff.

And, as a reminder: Smile Politely is giving away a pair of tickets to see Tweedy this Saturday. To enter to win, simply e-mail contests [at] smilepolitely [dot] com, type Jeff Tweedy in the subject line, and include your full name and e-mail address in the body of the e-mail. Then just sit back and wait. Friday night we’ll be e-mailing the winner of the drawing to let them know their good fortune.

Above photos (from left to right): Jeff Tweedy in the Cubs dugout at Wrigley Field in 2008; Tweedy with Chloe Rose Gerard in Urbana circa 1997 (in town mixing Mermaid Avenue Vol. 1); and Chloe Rose Gerard in the Cubs dugout at Wrigley Field in 2005. (Middle photo by Jon Pines, dugout photos courtesy of the Chicago Cubs)

“Before there was No Depression or ‘Alternative Country’ there was just fuckin’ good bands like Steve Pride and His Blood Kin. I liked them so much I stole their guitar player.” –Jeff Tweedy

Jeff used to come see Steve Pride quite a bit. Especially when we were doing a few shows with the Jayhawks (one time he was at the show before Jay Bennett, who showed up during our third song). We opened for Uncle Tupelo a few times, too, most notably at Lounge Ax (Sue Miller booked the club and would later marry Jeff). I always liked Mr. Tweedy a lot. He was in NYC the same night the Moon Seven Times was playing one time, and he came out and dutifully sat through our set (although, to be fair, our A&R guy was the former owner of Rockville Records, which put out the first Uncle Tupelo records). When I brought my kids by Private Studio in Urbana I remember Jeff got kind of misty-eyed around the kids (I figured because his own boy, Spencer, was just a tiny tater tot at the time).

Don Gerard, former member of Steve Pride and His Blood Kin and Moon Seven Times

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For one, Jeff calls me Walt. To be fair, I never correct anyone who inadvertently mistakes my name for Wade or Warren or Walt. I’ll answer to anything close, really. He’s always been very shy and quiet and thus I’m happy that he actually remembers my name (albeit a couple letters off) when I see him outside of a club. I remember a show at the (6 Taylor St.) Blind Pig in the very early Wilco days. Jeff’s mom had come up from Belleville (Ill.) to see the show. Afterwards, as the 100 or so people who had attended were filing out, or getting last call at the bar, or whatever … I casually approached her and said something to the effect of, “Your son is an absolutely AMAZING songwriter.” She smiled, simply and humbly replying to me, “I know.”

Ward Gollings, local concert promoter

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The first time we recorded at Private Studios, we only had the money to afford the B room, which was engineered by one of the best in town, Brendan Gamble. We had finished the tracking for our third album, Music For Security, and on the first day we were scheduled to mix, we showed up to find John Stirratt, Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy standing in front of the A room, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. Since the B room was closed, we went over to the A room to find out if Brendan was there, and made their acquaintance. They were very nice, interested in what band we were in and how things were going. They explained what they were working on, too — a collection of old Woody Guthrie songs that had never been committed to tape. With the help of their friend Billy Bragg, they were going to realize these songs in the new millenium. We thought it was awesome. Over the next few days, we spent a bunch of time together, smoking cigarettes outside and generally just shooting the shit. Jeff was never anything more than a guy mixing his record — very cool and pretty talkative.

One night, Jay was discussing the new Christian coffeeshop that had opened, and then subsequently closed, below his apartment on Main and Neil (now Guidos). It was a horrible story that ended with the owner having to declare bankruptcy after having come out of the closet, and then finally, committing suicide. It definitely sobered us up for a moment, until Jeff asked what the name of the shop was. Jay told him, “It was called Jitters and Rush.” To which Jeff replied, “Huh. I always thought that a good name for a Christian coffeehouse would be, ‘Jesus Christ, That’s Damn Good Coffee.’ “

It broke the tension of the story and we had a good laugh about it. And that was kind of what I took away from my few days with Jeff Tweedy. Kind of the playmaker in the group, and definitely pretty humble, in my estimation.

Seth Fein, former drummer of Absinthe Blind

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At an Uncle Tupelo show at Mabel’s, I was jacked up on chocolate-covered coffee beans (having pulled a grad-school all-nighter, I was up for 47 hours by the time they hit the stage). I remember John and Jeff kept wanting coffee beans. I had a large cup full of them.

When I lived downtown with Jay Bennett, I remember Jay and Jeff working on Summerteeth material at our loft — the old Wurlitzer and guitars were strewn about the main room. That loft was home base when Wilco played Ernie’s Club Twang across the street (and I think later that evening the old Blind Pig, with whom we shared an alley). I remember being allowed to play hookie from work when they came to town, so we took the guys to the Red Herring for lunch.

We had a magnetic poetry set on our refrigerator at our loft, and it was responsible for the “Candy Floss” lyrics “I’m the boy with the poetry power” and “She’s in the kitchen with bitter diamond drunks” (the last three terms were assembled with the magnets).

My old band The Kennett Brothers were DLO (that’s “dreaded local opener”) for Vic Chesnutt and Wilco when they played Canopy Club. The sound was so horrific on that occasion (on stage, anyway) that I remember Wilco almost walked. Nevertheless, I do remember it being a great show.

I should add that despite the well-publicized ouster of Jay from Wilco (and the obviousness of my personal sympathies in the matter), Jeff has never been anything other than nice and genuinely respectful toward me — both before and since. I hope he has a great show.

Edward Burch, founding member of The Kennett Brothers and songwriting partner of Jay Bennett on The Palace at 4 A.M.

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