As a heckler ribs Jeff Tweedy at this solo acoustic gig, the Wilco mainman makes a wry reference to the last time he played at this west London venue, in 1999, a night that saw him jumping off the stage to try to shake a reaction out of a reticent crowd. "Don't taunt me," Tweedy says. "I've got a chequered past with British audiences." When another audience member responds: "You've earned the right, Jeff", Tweedy ignores him, ploughing on rather than lingering in one spot to milk the adulation.
In a sense, that's a fair approximation of Tweedy's tenaciously pioneering career to date. Most recently, he stretched the country-rock template he helped establish with both his first band, Uncle Tupelo, and Wilco's sophomore album, Being There (1996), into the realms of grandly realised avant-rock on the albums Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001) and A Ghost is Born (2004). Notably, Yankee was equally revered for Wilco's early use of the internet to get a buzz going, after they were dropped by their record label, while Ghost saw Tweedy emerge stronger than ever from a shattering period of illness.
Along the way, his side-projects have included collaborating with Billy Bragg on two albums of Woody Guthrie songs, as well as the mini-supergroup Loose Fur, made up of Tweedy, the drummer Glenn Kotche and the alt rock linchpin Jim O'Rourke. Add that lot up and you'll see why Tweedy is welcomed tonight as one part survivor, one part alt rock royalty.
Each of these incarnations figured on the closing date of Tweedy's month-long acoustic tour, which wasn't so much a vindication (he's already vindicated - Yankee saw to that) as a warmly engaging, round-the-campfire-style combination of celebration, restrained respite from the white-heat, rock-squall grandeur of Wilco's last tour, and pure fun. On that note, he's a more lighthearted, knowing host than he was at his previous Shepherds Bush showing, and sufficiently at ease after the struggles preceding Ghost to make witty comparisons between people shouting requests from the audience and his inner abyss chatting to him. "Sometimes it says nice things," he says. "Sometimes it's a little surreal."
Amazingly, the songs cohere beautifully, confirming that Tweedy's current standing is built on a properly brilliant body of work. The interviews for Yankee and Ghost saw him arguing that both albums' songs wouldn't sound as "difficult" as some critics and record-company types claimed if he played them acoustically.
Tonight stood as the proof of that, with "Black Eye" (an Uncle Tupelo song), "Sunken Treasure" (from Being There) and "Passenger Side" (from Wilco's debut album, A.M.) sitting snugly beside Yankee's "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart".
If a running theme emerges, it's one of rock music's capacity to articulate and redeem, attended to with sensitivity and empathy rather than anthemic grandstanding. The opening "Sunken Treasure" lays out that stall with the line "Music is my saviour", while the offerings from Yankee and Ghost, mostly making up the final quarter of the set, play like survivalist songs of national and personal trauma respectively. Stripped back and acoustic, Ghost's "Muzzle of Bees" is sweetly sincere and eloquent; played later, the lovely "Reservations" rises out of the shattered-America soundscaping of the 9/11-era Yankee like something ever-so-subtly hymnal.
The encore is celebratory. "Heavy Metal Drummer" gets the crowd crooning along, before a rousing, telling "The Late Greats" sees Tweedy welcoming the idea that the best bands, best laughs, best whatevers, may well pass you by unnoticed. Embracing that thought may have helped him when he was without a record label or in rehab, but it isn't something he has to worry about now. As someone else said, he's earned that right.