CHICAGO -- It's almost as if Moe Tucker has traveled 180 degrees in 30 years.
As drummer for the avant-garde Velvet Underground during the late 1960s, Maureen "Moe" Tucker was wrapped in boundary-pushing, rock 'n' roll intellectualism. Clad in black and pounding out simple, organic rhythms, she was the epitome of the New York scene's tribal artiste.
Three decades later, Tucker's traded her drums for the guitar, her shades and striped shirts for stiff jeans, work boots and denim shirts. In her solo work, she's transformed the headiness of VU into the sweatiness of songwriting that focuses on blue-collar, minimum-wage frustration.
But, as she aptly proved during her set at Thurston's on Tuesday night, Tucker's solo work is strikingly deceptive.
Backed by a three-piece band, she performed seemingly simple songs that, over time, revealed clever, purposeful structures. Cover songs that, for others, would have been cursory exercises became, in Tucker's hands, thoughtful interpretations.
"Her singing voice was much fiercer than I expected it to be," said Mickey Menard, a 27-year-old VU fan from Chicago, who was watching Tucker for the first time. "It was much punchier, almost punk rock."
The 13-song, 70-minute set -- a gig to celebrate the opening of the Chicago Underground Film Festival -- began with one of several cuts Tucker calls her "anti-Wal-Mart work." Though she got her musical start back in Andy Warhol's Factory art community, Tucker, 53, has spent many of the past 20 years working in conditions approaching a literal factory. Songs such as "That's Bad," "Fired Up" and "Hey Mersh" were born out of her experience as an under-appreciated Wal-Mart employee in Georgia.
Tucker's performance clearly demonstrated her admiration for labor. Positioned behind a music stand displaying a notebook of lyrics (stage pieces that seemed more like utilitarian tools than crutches), she held her steely-gray Jazzmaster guitar close to her chest, looking down at the instrument with determination during "Hey Mersh." Each stroke of the strings was its own significant piece of work, to be valued both for its own merits and as part of the greater whole of the song.
In the background, longtime Tucker drummer John Sluggett accented the creativity behind each composition.
One new track began by setting out a series of claustrophobic ruminations from Tucker: "I wanna paddle but they won't give me oars/ I want to ride, but I'm afraid of the horse," she sang. Behind her, Sluggett rumbled his toms on the verses, then slipped into ominous snare roles for the chorus.
As Tucker continued with the stifling lyrics, Sluggett's work conjured images of thunderclouds, baiting listeners to wonder whether the intensity would break with relief or catastrophe. The song, however, ended more appropriately with an abrupt halt, leaving the uneasy feeling of the lyrics in listeners' stomachs even after the actual number had stopped.
Of course, many of the 150 people at Tuesday's show had come to hear Tucker wade into her Velvet Underground past, which she did with deftness. "After Hours" and "I'm Sticking With You" -- which Tucker originally sang with the pioneering outfit -- were greeted most warmly, but it was "Pale Blue Eyes" that offered the more intriguing VU moment.
Tucker sang the piece not just as a fan of Velvet singer and songwriter Lou Reed, but as an interpreter of his work, altering the phrasing and melody to sound more fragile and weary than Reed's.
Coming from her, the song's observations sounded more innocent, in part because her voice is naturally higher, but also because she used her intonation to end lyrics on high notes. Whereas Reed originally sang the song as an emotional commentary, Tucker offered it more questioningly, as if she were looking for concurrence from someone.
"We've all listened to these songs a billion times and we know how it's supposed to go," Menard said. "But listening to her do it was still very enjoyable and made you think about the song in a different way."
As anticipated, Tucker ended her set with a rousing take on "Bo Diddley," which has become a standard of her solo shows over the years.
It's a testament to the confidence of her creative vision that Tucker turned this eponymous song of a rock 'n' roll legend into her signature statement.