No matter how many people he knows at a St. Louis Son Volt show, Jay Farrar will always be the guy who played a big part in creating the "alt. country" genre. Twenty years after Uncle Tupelo's heyday, Farrar and the current Son Volt line-up stay true to their roots without being strangled by them, presenting a set that sometimes rocks, sometimes twangs, and always remains heartfelt and honest.
Son Volt's Friday night show opened with the twang-free "The Picture." Without the horn section from the album version, the band compensated with Farrar on harmonica and a wall of guitar that announced the presence of a rock band -- a rock band that, over the course of a few songs, melted into the pure country of "Dust of Daylight" from this year's American Central Dust. Lap and pedal steel guitars had gradually been added through the set, creating a seamless transition.
"Cocaine and Ashes" highlighted the liberties Son Volt takes in concert. The band preserved the original's introspection, with the quiet steel guitars crying in the beginning. But the song swelled into a blues crescendo and ended with James Walbourne trading his lap steel for electric guitar, with just a few Keith Richards-inspired licks at the end.
However, Farrar didn't neglect his classics. "Ten Second News," his funeral dirge for Times Beach, Missouri, brought wails and cheers from the crowd with its first notes that continued through the song's low, dark end as it transitioned into "Dynamite" from the new album. The song's bright arrangement belied dark lyrics, with Farrar's recurring image of broken levees that arose next in "Pushed Too Far" and its images of hurricane-ravaged Louisiana. Live, the mournful songs gain the fire and anger of the displaced and disappointed.
Through the latter half of the show the band built walls of guitar wails. On the Eastern-tinged "Action," the instruments sounded like electric sitars, while a searing take on "Afterglow 61" hard enough to knock the term "alt country" out of the vernacular. Even "Tear-Stained Eye" took on a rumbling richness that didn't exist fifteen years go.
Amidst the noise was an all-twang rendition of "Big Sur" from Farrar's Jack Kerouac-inspired collaboration with Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard. Farrar's voice shined in the bare-bones take on the album's "San Francisco." His quiet baritone can be overpowered by the full-on rock arrangements, but it's beautiful and nostalgic when paired with acoustic guitar and Mark Spencer's piano.
With a set full of new material and revisions of past works, the last three songs honored Farrar's past with the timeless sweetness of "Windfall." Next, a cover of Uncle Tupelo collaborator Doug Sahm's "I'm Not that Cat Anymore" that dripped with Stones-style guitar. They ended with "Are You Sure Hank Done it This Way," a Waylon Jennings classic often covered during Farrar's UT days. Slow and smoldering, the song crept into a raging inferno fueled by the old punk energy of Uncle Tupelo and tempered with the band's well-crafted musicianship and a tightness that wouldn't have been possible back then.
No, Farrar's not that cat anymore. Instead, he's matured musically and has found a band that cooperates with his musical vision while honoring his past. He keeps progressing. Even Hank couldn't do that.
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