Son Volt Can Still Rock St. Louis — 28 Years Later

The band even played Trace from start to finish

Aug 21, 2023 at 3:14 pm
click to enlarge Jay Farrar on stage.
Jo Duncan
Jay Farrar made a subtle nod to his hometown during the show, calling St. Louis "familiar enviorns."

Jay Farrar is not going to work the room. He’s not going to walk to the sides of the stage, wave or point to people in the audience, encourage the crowd to sing along, make eye contact or smile. His stage banter is usually limited to “Thanks for coming out,” though during Friday night’s show at Delmar Hall, the first of a two-night run billed as “28 Years of Son Volt,” he mentioned that it was “nice to be back in familiar environs,” as close as Farrar was going to come to flirting with a hometown crowd.

What Farrar does do is play consummately skillful versions of great songs, and his tacturn style has become part of a sheepdog charm that goes back to the Uncle Tupelo days. By the looks of the crowd at Delmar Hall, most of the fans remember those days, and many were probably present for those last-ever Uncle Tupelo shows at Mississippi Nights in 1994. That was back when the cracks that were breaking Farrar and Jeff Tweedy apart were visible on stage. The pair had no interaction, taking turns singing their own songs from their swan song Anodyne, essentially a showcase for their solo careers to come.

I was always a Jay guy, by the way. I preferred his songs and vocals over Tweedy’s. I thought he was cool looking. I stood on Farrar’s side of the stage. So after Tupelo disbanded and both men released their own albums in 1995 (Tweedy with Wilco’s A.M. in March and Farrar with Son Volt’s Trace in September), I felt validated as a member of Team Jay that Trace was the consensus superior album, trouncing A.M. both critically and commercially.

Things, of course, did not continue in that trajectory, which is the subject of another article. It is worth noting here, however, that Farrar has held up physically quite well. Tweedy, in comparison, is unrecognizable from his ’90s self, now a large wooly man who was badly hobbled at his Sheldon show last month by worn-out hips. Farrar still looks straight out of ’95 with the balanced sebum production that makes for his shiny, easy shag, now falling down to a pair of shades worn throughout the show that felt more like a barrier to Farrar’s bashful anxiety than an attempt to look cool. Plus, his trademark oak-aged, bassoon-like voice is still perfectly intact. Farrar’s voice is a gorgeous instrument, and his intuitive method of holding onto notes that other singers would throw away makes him a distinctively great stylist.

Farrar had planned a commemorative tour for the 25th anniversary of Son Volt’s debut album, Trace, but that tour was delayed by the pandemic until now. So instead of waiting until the album’s 30th anniversary in 2025, Farrar went ahead and did it this year, shortly after the release of Day of the Doug, Son Volt’s tribute album to Texas singer-songwriter Doug Sahm. So this tour is both a showcase for the Sahm songs on the new album and a nostalgic toast to Trace, a double feature that made up the bulk of the night's 25-song set.

The set opened with seven straight Sahm tunes, a reminder of Farrar’s unique facility for bringing the best out of alt-country songs like these, embellished by Mark Spencer’s pedal steel and local hero John Horton’s electric guitar. Much of the night, Farrar played a Fender Acoustasonic, allowing him to mix electric and acoustic guitar voices that mingled with Horton’s Strats, Les Pauls and a ringing hollowbody Gretsch 6119.

It was a superb opening run, even if the audience didn’t seem all that familiar with the Sahm tunes. But what killer tunes, four of them taken from the new album, including “Float Away,” sung by bassist Andrew Duplantis. The real highlight of the Sahm set was the inclusion of “Give Back the Key to My Heart,” a 1976 Sahm song that ended up on Anodyne as a duet between Farrar and Sahm, a rare instance of Farrar dipping back into the Uncle Tupelo catalog apart from “Chickamauga,” to which Farrar remains fiercely loyal to this day.

Next, the band played Trace start to finish, which is what the crowd primarily showed up for. After all, Trace is easily Farrar’s most beloved post-Tupelo album, and a full performance of the record served as a de facto best-of-Jay procession in one continuous burst. “Windfall” opens the album, and getting the one song Farrar absolutely has had to play during every Son Volt show, typically saved for encores, so early in the set was itself a novelty. But “Tear Stained Eye,” “Route” and “Drown,” songs that seemingly poured out of Farrar in an elemental flash of genius in 1995, are deeply imprinted in this crowd and represented an all-killer, no-filler heart of the show.

The songs on the back half of the album have been less revisited — on playlists, turntables, Son Volt shows — so it was great to knock the dust off of “Catching On” and “Too Early.” The most welcome surprise of the Trace run was when “Ten Second News,” the album’s sleepiest song, turned into the night’s noisiest, fiercest extended jam. And how about the lunatic on the dance floor who was clearing space in every direction during “Mystifies Me” like a peyote-engorged desert tripper? I mean, I too have been waiting decades to hear Jay sing that Ron Wood beauty in concert again, but damn.

After Trace, the band had time for a few more, spreading selections across four earlier albums, including a couple from other ’90s albums in the spirit of the night, Wide Swing Tremolo (“Driving the View”) and Straightaways (“Picking Up the Signal”). To wrap things up, Farrar paid tribute to a couple of fallen heroes — Tom Petty on Friday with “American Girl” and Robbie Robertson on Saturday with “The Weight” — before finishing, naturally, with a scorching “Chickamauga.” It was a trip through the past in which Farrar gave everyone exactly what they wanted by playing to his greatest strengths, proving that now and then what keeps you running never seems to die.

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