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What a fitting swansong. Chicago 2017 captures a live set and some bonus loft rehearsal featuring Johnston (R.I.P.) backed by Tweedy – the band that Jeff and his son Spencer have created for sporadic recording and touring (it features the father/son combo with guitarist/keyboardist Liam Cunningham, bassist Darin Gray and guitarist Jim Elkington).
They are the straight men – playing it just right without desperately trying to over-correct. They go with the flow but remain low-key. They know that what matters here is Johnston’s words, the wobble of his voice and the quirk of his ideas.
Since Johnston recorded (or at least released) very little in the last decade of his life (at least comparatively) we notice the quirk of his ideas and the deterioration of his voice and performing abilities combining to make a new sound. Something like Cold Hard World sounds even more brutal as he slurs and struggles and nothing prepares you quite for the lines he couples as examples of the cold hard world: “I met a fireman/he said you never forget burning flesh” and then, “And the librarian said do you have a card here?/I said I’ve been coming here for weeks, don’t you recognise me by now?/I’ve checked out a million books just to get you to notice me”. In Johnston’s world – the world he walked about in and the one he lived in deep inside his head – these two separate atrocities were equal. Both truly terrible.
The band sits subdued. They know their job. More than that they know they are there to pay tribute to the spirit even when he was living.
And it’s a glorious celebration of some of Johnston’s best cuts. Casper The Friendly Ghost, Walking the Cow riding on a single-chord keyboard vamp, the deep story-song of Funeral Home, one of the very best Beatles covers you could ever imagine in I’m So Tired and one of the greatest pop-hits that never quite happened, Speeding Motorcycle.
True Love Will Find You In The End is the closer and it’s with weepy eyes that you listen. In fact I defy you to make it all the way through this – or indeed this album’s opener, Story of An Artist, without misting up a tad. If you’ve ever cared about anything artistic, including your own attempts, then these songs will speak right to your heart. Their wobbly execution only endearing them further.
What Johnston had you couldn’t teach. How he arrived at it is a price too steep for anyone to want to pay. And Tweedy’s ability here, to walk the straightest of lines and stay in support, is hugely admirable. This is a must for fans to here. And a fitting finale.
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