If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: One man’s lazy embedding of YouTube videos is another man’s history of Uncle Tupelo. Consider it a documentary, minus all the boring interviews, montages, and the Ken Burns move where a voice intones dramatically as a camera slowly pans across a black and white photo, and a lonesome banjo picks underneath. Here all you’re getting are videos and my liner notes. Don’t act like you don’t love it.
There are several behind the scenes heroes in this post. One is the fella who uploaded nearly all of these clips, a mysterious wanderer by the name of PantsElderly. I believe I once knew him as the man of Constance sorrow and he was friendly with Farrar, Tweedy, and Heidorn way back in the early days. Another hero is Shayne Stacy, a fellow Californian and a bona fide UT documentarian, who attended and filmed a number of these shows. BE THANKFUL for their giving spirit! If it weren’t for these two guys, we’d have jack fucking shit for Uncle Tupelo videos. The final heroes are all the people who contributed to and help maintain Factory Belt, the unofficial Uncle Tupelo archives. Setlists, flyers, stories, it’s gold, Jerry! GOLD!
We got to the point where, during our senior year, we’d rent a local hall, the Liederkranz, on a Saturday night for $100 and cram about 500 high school students in there at $2-3 a pop. We’d have Jeff’s mom, Jo, collect money at the door, usually with friends Kong and Chuck nearby to make sure thing went OK. (We’d) play and sweat for 3-4 hours, and load out, usually with friends Kong and Chuck nearby to make sure thing went OK. We’d split the money up on Sunday and have a bunch of new albums, instruments, and stories on Monday.”
–Mike Heidorn from the No Depression liner notes
Primatives – Munsters Theme
Liederkranz Hall, Belleville, IL
October 31, 1985
How awesome is this??? It’s Halloween 1985, which you can tell because Farrar is dressed as Future Slash, Tweedy is rocking the Laura Ingalls, and Heidorn appears to be Aloha Moe Tucker. Great look, good drummer. Can you believe these guys were 18 years old? I feel ancient.
Primatives – Psycho
Liederkranz Hall, Belleville, IL
October 31, 1985
Same Halloween show, with a full complement of Primatives, including Wade Farrar (yes, Jay’s brother) on lead vocals. This is the old Sonics classic rendered pretty damn well by a bunch of midwestern kids. Gotta love Tweedy’s awesome shrieks beginning at 1:35. Yeah, that was there from the start.
Primatives – Smoking Gun
Mississippi Nights, St. Louis
July 28, 1986
This sounds like a combination of The Standells‘ “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White” (which Uncle Tupelo later covered) and circa ’86 Soul Asylum. I’m curious if Farrar and Tweedy were/are Soul Asylum fans. Surely they have to be fans of the 1986-90 period, right?
Within a few months of this show, the Primatives would become Uncle Tupelo, Wade would leave the band, and Jay and Jeff would take over (mostly Jay).
Uncle Tupelo – Good Times
Corner Tavern, Edwardsville, IL
June 30, 1987
Terrible video quality, terrible audio quality, but punk as fuck, and HOW COOL IS IT THAT THIS EXISTS?!?! Think about it. This is the first song Uncle Tupelo ever played. Imagine if we happened to have the last song Uncle Tupelo ever played as a bookend. How cool would that be? But come on, what are the odds of that happening?
Uncle Tupelo – Good Times/Pickle River
French Village Drive In, East St. Louis, IL
July 5, 1987
From Uncle Tupelo’s second show, at an East St. Louis drive-in of all places. Same song as before, but here it sounds AWESOME. No Depression is three years away, but “Good Times” sounds like it could fit right in. Meanwhile, “Pickle River” is an instrumental that sounds like it was smuggled in from the Fables Of The Reconstruction rehearsals.
Uncle Tupelo – Screen Door
Lincoln Theater, Belleville, IL
Probably the first performance of this tune, I like the giddyup flavor here in contrast to the back porch version on No Depression. Tweedy supposedly hates this song, but it’s too good to hate. Besides, a songwriter has to start somewhere and there are a million early songs worse than “Screen Door.” If the artistic tension between Farrar and Tweedy was barely palpable in 1987, to his credit Jeff brought to Tupelo an honest, spazzy energy, a great voice, and more talent than he’s usually credited with having.
Uncle Tupelo – Graveyard Shift
Mississippi River Center Benefit, St. Louis
Uncle Tupelo’s first TV appearance was apparently on the set of A Different World. UT are loose in the best sense of the word, Heidorn and Tweedy have a nice, heavy swing, and Farrar shows how he extended the violent guitar tradition of J Mascis and Bob Mould, men whose own guitar playing invariably works in the context of a power trio. HUGE sound, nasty, heavy, biting tone, and designed to fill in the gaps between the bass and drums with thunderbolts and lightning, very very frighteningly.
Uncle Tupelo – Fortunate Son
Mississippi River Center Benefit, St. Louis
From the same Mississippi River Center benefit, this is a song Uncle Tupelo should be covering. When talking about the late ’60s/early ’70s templates for the mid-’90s alt.country semi-revolution, it’s easy to get caught up in The Byrds, The Band, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young. That’s a murderer’s row of country-rock royalty. Thus, it’s easy to overlook Creedence. But we shouldn’t, because they were badasses, and quite possibly the greatest American rock ‘n’ roll band ever.
“Fortunate Son” was a regular part of UT’s sets in this era and even appeared on their 1988 cassette, Live And Otherwise.
Uncle Tupelo – Factory Belt
“Critical Mass” TV show
Recorded in Belleville, IL
“Critical Mass” was a St. Louis cable access show and this was recorded a month before the band went to Boston to record No Depression with Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade at Fort Apache South (January 21-31, 1990). Yeah, I guess this song is pretty good.
“It’s funny how it all works out
Mad Men in suits walking about
I’d like to change their point of view someday
But I feel my patience slipping away
Looks like it’s time to lay this burden down
Stop messing around
Don’t want to go to the grave without a sound
Give the soul a place to rest
Not to ride on the factory belt.”
Farrar’s genius here is twofold. In the first verse he’s totally anticipating annoying Mad Men Mania 20 years before it happens, and how he knows it’s secretly terrible and he’s tired of hearing about it, but bOObs and suits and obvious political subtext and Jon Hammyum and fuck it, we need an excuse to drink on Sunday nights, so bOObs let’s drink fuckyeahhammboOOobs!!!!
The second verse is an honest evocation of working class escape, kinda Minutemen in the verses, REM in the chorus. So good. And I don’t know what you were doing at 22-23 years old, but Farrar was writing this. What a dick, right?
Uncle Tupelo – Gun
Toad’s Place, New Haven, CT
February 26, 1991
Opening for The Replacements
It’s totally appropriate that the band was opening for the Replacements here. The Mats inspired pretty much every no bullshit indie rock ‘n’ roll band of the era and Uncle Tupelo was no exception. This show (and short tour) can certainly can be seen as a symbolic passing of the kickass Midwestern indie rock band torch.
Jeff Tweedy’s first undisputed grade A anthem is as good a Westerberg homage as you’re gonna find, with the line “Climbing up the ladder/Breaking my shin on the very first rung” an explicit nod (as good as a wink) to the opening lines of “Bastards Of Young”: “God, what a mess on the ladder of success/When you take one step and miss the whole first rung.”
On a related note, how good was 1991 for great opening songs on classic albums? Here’s my Top 5, with 1-3 virtually interchangeable, and the same for 4-5. FYI, this was originally a Top 4, but somehow I overlooked my favorite Dinosaur Jr song on my favorite Dinosaur Jr album, Green Mind. Unacceptable, had to be corrected.
1. Teenage Fanclub – “The Concept”
2. Dinosaur Jr – “The Wagon”
3. Uncle Tupelo – “Gun”
4. Superchunk – “Skip Steps 1 & 3”
5. Nirvana – “Smells Like Something Something”
Uncle Tupelo – True To Life
The Hurricane, Kansas City, MO
April 25, 1991
OK, so not a great video. Light is for shit and a fucking balloon blocks sightlines in the last :45, but the sound is good and I believe we have the first Farrar w/Gibson SG sighting. Lyrically, this is untouchable, another visionary, yet heartfelt, drinking class broadside. You may know that I’m not typically a lyrics guy, but song after Uncle Tupelo song is Farrar spinning lyrical gems. At some point, you have to take notice.
“This tightwire act
Leaving us here for dead
To news of the world
And liquor piles up ahead
Dodging those with words of power
Forever on their breath
When the quality of life gets tripped up
And strangled like death
It seems it’s getting harder out there
Especially without time enough to see.”
In terms of musical continuum, where Creedence and Neil Young were templates for Uncle Tupelo, all three were templates for Slobberbone. I think Brent Best may have heard “True To Life” a time or two. But, this is the way music is supposed to work. Good ideas stay good ideas because new artists add their twist to the formula.
Uncle Tupelo – Punch Drunk
Toad’s Place, New Haven, CT
March 2, 1992
Hard to believe this band was two weeks away from recording an all-acoustic country/folk album. Once again at Toad’s Place, the band sounds killer, with Farrar on SG, and the Heidorn/Tweedy rhythm section in top form. Sadly, this was one of Mike’s final shows with UT, his final gig coming a few weeks later, on April 23 at Mississippi Nights.
“Punch Drunk” is kind of perfect here since it was the last of Uncle Tupelo’s great stop-start, Heidorn-heavy punk rockers. That element of the band was so fundamental for so long, and it more or less ended with Mike’s departure. Not that Uncle Tupelo stopped rocking, they just learned to rock in a different way. For example …
Uncle Tupelo – Postcard
Mabel’s, Champaign, IL
November 11, 1992
Did I mention that Still Feel Gone is my favorite record of the 1990s? That being the case, I have to follow up “Punch Drunk” with “Postcard.” It’s a rule. Plus, I have to show some love to the Postcard community, the one-time Uncle Tupelo-centric “mailing list,” that is now way more catholic in its discussion points. For example, a question to the list now might be, “Why was I programmed to feel pain?” whereas back in the day it might’ve been, “How was Bill Belzer as a replacement on drums for Mike Heidorn?”
I’m glad you asked that, fictious Postcard member from the past. Bill Belzer was only in Uncle Tupelo for six months, but I think he’s excellent here. Nails all the Heidorn fills. Farrar steals the show, though, with his feral guitar tone, especially the solo from 1:50-2:14. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t he playing a 1950s Gibson TV Special a la Johnny Thunders? Also, rhetorical question: If this guitar sound were available to you as a creative outlet, why in God’s name would you ever go away from it???
FUN FACT: The Primatives opened for Johnny Thunders at Mississippi Nights on April 2, 1986.
Uncle Tupelo -Whiskey Bottle
Jake’s, Bloomington, IN
November 10, 1992
Speaking of alternate history, why not posit the alternate Uncle Tupelo history in which Brian Henneman joins the band following the March sessions as second guitarist, multi-instrumentalist, occasional vocalist, and lukewarm water betwixt Tweedy’s fire and Farrar’s ice? It’s not totally out of the realm of possibility. He was a roadie, second guitarist, and all-around UT fix-it-man anyway, as well as a founding member of Coffee Creek, the Tupelo country-rock side project that played together 4 times. You do Anodyne, but now with Henneman, which can only be a good thing circa 1993. Maybe he extends the life of the band only another 2-3 albums, but that still means another 2-3 Uncle Tupelo albums.
An extended UT inherently means all those early Son Volt and Wilco songs are now Uncle Tupelo songs. Is this necessarily a negative? I know it’s strange to contemplate, but how could “Windfall” and “Passenger Side” under the Uncle Tupelo aegis possibly be bad thing? Weird sure, but musically it would have to go out of its way to be anything less than superb. And maybe the Bottle Rockets never happen, which is too bad. On the other hand, “Kerosene” and “Indianapolis” in Bizarro Uncle Tupelo is a pretty decent consolation prize.
Uncle Tupelo -Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down
Palomino, North Hollywood, CA
February 26, 1993
One of the earlyish shows with Ken Coomer on drums and Max Johnston on fiddle, but 3-4 months before John Stirratt joined on bass. Remember from my recent visit to the March album that the recorded “Satan” is led by Henneman’s bouzouki. Here, 11 months after the recording, Johnston makes the song his own. Max was the secret weapon of Uncle Tupelo mk 2, the glue guy who held the disparate elements together playing everything with strings, including I believe some sort of Klingon dulcimer. In fact, you could make a strong argument that Max Johnston is the secret weapon of nearly every album he’s ever appeared on, beginning with Anodyne in 1993, and continuing through his stints in Wilco, Freakwater, and since 1999, The Gourds.
Uncle Tupelo -The Long Cut
Conan O’Brien Show
February 21, 1994
It’s a shame that Farrar looks like he’d rather be getting dental surgery than playing Tweedy’s song on national television. That said, you cannot deny Jay’s vicious guitar tone throughout. Dude could release the Kraken. Max’s lap steel is a nice touch for the in-between parts when you can actually hear him. Band drama aside, this is a great fucking song and deserved to be foisted on the American public. “The Long Cut” is a first ballot hall of famer.
At this point, UT is on borrowed time. They have about 30 shows remaining and just under 10 weeks left in the tank. Better see ’em while you can.
Uncle Tupelo – Atomic Power
Mississippi Nights, St. Louis
April 30, 1994
Uncle Tupelo’s penultimate show and this old Louvin Brothers chestnut brings us nearly full circle. It was this song that Farrar, Tweedy, and Peter Buck bonded over following UT’s first show in Athens (at the 40 Watt, 7/10/90), when they opened with it. That meeting, of course, set the stage for March 16-20, 1992. Here “Atomic Power” receives the Max Johnston fiddle treatment, ergo, makes it better.
Uncle Tupelo – Looking For A Way Out
Mississippi Nights, St. Louis
May 1, 1994
Over the last 20 years, it’s normal to speculate on the possibility of an Uncle Tupelo reunion (unlikely), but that query overlooks the fact that there WAS an Uncle Tupelo reunion. Mike Heidorn returned to the drumkit for Uncle Tupelo’s penultimate song, “Looking For A Way Out,” the 2nd track from their best album (in my opinion), Still Feel Gone. The reunion briefly creates a pallor of goodwill in the room as Farrar and Tweedy obviously relish the opportunity to play one last time with their old friend. One last time for Heidorn to be the secret glue that held the whole operation together. It’s a great moment lucky enough to be caught on film.
On a side note, “Looking For A Way Out” is the obvious precursor to Slobberbone‘s “That Is All,” but I think it also anticipates “Distopian Dream Girl” off Built To Spill‘s classic, There’s Nothing Wrong With Love (1994). This comparison makes sense when you consider that Doug Martsch‘s role as lead guitarist in his power trio wasn’t all that different from Farrar’s role in the old power trio version of UT.
I spoke earlier of the musical continuum. It’s worth noting that the one song to appear on Uncle Tupelo, Slobberbone, and Built To Spill setlists is “Cortez The Killer.” Discuss amongst yourselves.
Uncle Tupelo/Coffee Creek – Gimme Three Steps
Mississippi Nights, St. Louis
May 1, 1994
And so the Uncle Tupelo story ends here, with a little Skynyrd. Why the fuck not? Brian Henneman of the Bottle Rockets — UT’s guitar tech and 2nd guitarist on and off from 1990-93 — sings lead mainly because he was the only guy who knew all the words! It’s fun to watch now because we’re removed from the moment, but I have to imagine that at the time it was more of a half fun, half sad whistle past the graveyard type deal. Given Henneman’s lead vocal and guitar, you could make the argument that this final Uncle Tupelo ever is actually more of a Coffee Creek reunion/performance than UT proper, but it’s close enough for historical purposes.
If you really want your mind blown, consider this timeline fact.
- Uncle Tupelo’s first show – June 30, 1987
- Uncle Tupelo’s last show – May 1, 1994
The duration between those two dates is 6 years, 10 months, and 1 day. The current incarnation of Wilco, a band once seemingly fraught with change, has basically been in place since spring 2004. That’s a full decade, over 3 years longer than the entirety of Uncle Tupelo. Stupid ravages of time.
Uncle Tupelo is one of my favorite bands ever, and one of the indisputably great, yet tragically short-lived American rock ‘n’ roll bands that includes Creedence, Nirvana, The Minutemen, and the Velvet Underground. Every now and then it’s good to be reminded of how awesome they were.
“No more will I see you
No more will I see you
No more will I see you.”
nice work, you've been busy.
This was great. i don't know who you are or where you are from, but if you were a chick, you would be me. And so I must ask this question-as i have a brother who is my twin-“Brett Mitchell, is this you? It's tawny, your sister, not a stalker.” now, that said, i was in 10th grade when all this music started happening. In love with gram parsons, brett gave me uncle tupelo to prove that there were other people in the world, and gram parsons had finally driven him crazy. so, i was 14 then, and now working to 41; think how old i must feel! Also, just to see someone mention johnny thunders in an article in this decade was almost unheard of…do you remember
richard hell and the voidoids? Lots of good punk came from nyc then. few of them “made it”, and many didn't live thru it. Remember Johnny glitter? the song “do you wanna touch” leaves a bad taste in my mouth after he was jailed as a child molester. Fuck. I got rid of my NY dolls lps after that.(yes, lp's. or 8 tracks.) anyway, i loved your article (especially since you write like me, and i can be a writer's snob.) and you turned me on to one band that i'd not heard of, you know, because i live in b.f.e. also, “brett, email me, call me, send a letter…what the fuck? I am your absolute closest relative and we haven't spoken since o4! grow some balls and man up to the wife, dude. I miss you. and, (something i don't say
often and often don't mean…i love you!” talk to me. kim_hester@ sbcglobal.net
Sorry if you are not my brother. But if you want to write back, I'll make you my honorary twin, since my real one has ditched me long ago. And I don't know how to end this letter since i don't know who i'm talking to. “love” is pretentious (see above) if you are, indeed, not brett. So,
Tawny, you have now officially become my favorite commenter, even if you thought I was somebody else. I'm OK with that.
What? No clips from any of their 8 million shows at the Blue Note? C'mon Davis …
could it be that i am now your favorite poster (post-er? not to be confused with large images push-pinned upon my walls when I was a teen. or, occasionally above my bed if i had an obsession with someone. Left lots of holes on the ceiling, too, as i went through obsessions then(?) as quickly as some go through a pack of smokes…and i have no idea where i was going with that story…)oh, wait, it's coming in thru my brain cloud. I am your new favorite post-er because i gave you that buzz that comes along (then fades quickly) with being told you are a great writer. though, re-reading my garbled post, i now see the comment was an underhanded ego stroke to my own self-professed coolness. you know, the kind of coolness that lives in my mind? But, shoving my own ego in my pocket, i'll say it the way it should have been said. you are a good writer, and i am curious if you use your gift of poetic prose any way other than the blog forum. Ummm, I just made that up, as i have no idea if such a thing as “blog forum” exists. in fact, it has only been two days that i have known the meaning of the word “blog,” and only found out when i received a phone call from someone who identified with my words, “and,” sez she, “you have that old soul of a tortured artist mixed with the gift of attracting other lost souls out there.” “Thanks,” I told her, being too old to blush at compliments anymore. “So,” she continued, “You bring these creative people out of hiding, keeping them from being alienated, actually saying you care how they feel.” I nodded at the phone, but i guess she didn't see that, since there was a pause before she next spoke. “So, what i am saying is that people, especially teens, really relate to your world, and there's a need for that.” I probably nodded again, not feeling like telling her that i've never much felt that anyone needed me, much less that i was needed as therapy for people who didn't know me. Again, she didn't hear my nod. “I want you to start a blog,” sez the voice that cannot see my head movements. “so what do you think?” blind-voice asks. “are you with me on this.” not sure, if i was or not, being the type who is not only technologically challenged, but also has anxiety issues with all things electronic…can you feel the panic of these poor letters as i type them? can you believe i still say, and know how to, Type…and so i did what i always do; i told the truth. “I would, i guess.” i'm always fine with the writing part. “if you can tell me what a blog is, i'll see what i can do.” And that is how i learned what a blog is, and being a word-snob, i wish it had a different name. As is, it sounds like something which, though not life-threatening, is highly contagious, and i already spend enough time in hospitals around the country. isn't there something else to call it rather than b**g? i don't want to catch warts from it.
incidentally, i like toads, warts and all. name something that is towed? a frog! and, with that inside joke, and the fact that i have no idea where i was going with this whole story, i'll leave you. I sometimes even wonder what is wrong with my head…i went from telling you “you only like me 'cause i said you write well,” to words i that do not feel right upon the tongue, with a handful of references to teenage obsessions, to my own deadly-sin which which i struggle, pride. some say i am too full of myself. perhaps, which is why i ask those people, jokingly, if they want a few glossies and a dozen thumbtacks so they can hang me above their bed.
and i give to you the task of thinking of a word to replace b**g, because, perhaps i am a shallow person
I had to go back and re-read this after the Henneman article. It occurs to me that nearly 7 years for a band isn’t bad. A lot of marriages don’t last that long. Having never been married, nor ever been in a band, I can imagine that a band relationship may be more intense than a marriage. Shit, I can hardly deal with my co-workers five days a week, and I don’t even travel in a small van or share hotel rooms with them!
Nice blog! I can see my fav UT vids in one spot!
Not sure if UT’s first TV appearance was on the show “A Different World” is true. Can this be verified?
What I like about UT is the contrast and inter-dependency between Farrar and Tweedy. Farrar definitely has a knack for the descriptive and for pushing the hard edges of the UT sound while Tweedy can capture an experience or emotion with a few choice words through his naive-like delivery. The timeline of UT is exactly the way a band should exist. Similar to the Beatles, Big Star, and The Police, a band should start and end their tenure with nothing but great music and know when to call it a day. I really can’t imagine a band like UT ever reuniting, nor should they. Both Farrar and Tweedy have evolved too far along in their respective careers to step back and attempt to recreate music that has now seeped into our being. With a reunion come expectations by their old and new fans that Farrar and Tweedy go through the motions of being 24 again while forgetting what they have both accomplished post-UT. It’s like wanting our kids to be young, sweet, and innocent for the rest of our lives – it’s impossible.
You are right. Capturing the lighting in a bottle is tough to do, but sometimes with enough faith nostalgia can still hit pretty close. Especially if they both are willing…
About the 15th time I’ve read this. Still good.
Haha. Thanks Gene.
Glad I stumbled upon this. Thanks for your work in pulling this together. Discovered Uncle Tupelo and Wilco after becoming a huge fan of Jay when Son Volt released Trace. I’m still more of of Jay fan. He would read the dictionary and I would love it because if his voice.
I think Tweedy is the more gifted in knowing how to surround himself with talent and reinventing Wilco but their best was AM through YHF imho.
Would pay a lot of money to see a UT reunion, which I’m fairly certain would never happen and as a Marylander I know I’d have to travel pretty far to witness it if it did.
Good people. May the Wind take your troubles away.
Thanks Jamie! And I’m with you on the UT reunion … on both wanting to see it and the unlikelihood of it happening.
In your comments for the Smoking Gun clip, you question whether Jeff and Jay were fans of mid 80s Soul Asylum. Good instincts! In Chapter 3 of Greg Kot’s book, Learning How to Die, he provides a brief account of a high school aged Jeff interviewing Soul Asylum for a St Louis music magazine. Perhaps that may have influenced his being invited years later, post-Uncle Tupelo, to join in recording on a few of the Golden Smog albums. And that initial invitation, as Kot also explains, came at a time when Jeff was unsure whether he even had a place in the music world. Excellent work compiling all of this, and very nice commentary too. I shall always love Uncle Tupelo, and I am heartened to see someone so devoted that you were inspired to do this.
Thanks again Jerry. Funny, I actually read the Kot book a year or so after I wrote this piece, so that’s when I found out about the Soul Asylum connection. But, you’re right about the importance of Golden Smog. I should’ve been smarter and used Tweedy’s participation in that group as a way to work backwards.