Review by Kirsten Ferguson
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
As Jeff Tweedy’s band Wilco prepares for their three-day Solid Sound Festival this weekend at MASS MoCA, it’s easy to forget Tweedy’s roots in the humbler Midwest alt-country band Uncle Tupelo, which he formed with high school friend Jay Farrar in Illinois in 1987. A soured relationship between the pair led to the band’s dissolution in 1994, but by the following year both songwriters had released well-received albums with new bands: Farrar with Son Volt and Tweedy with Wilco.
When Son Volt played Bogie’s in Albany back in 1995, it was hard not to compare Farrar’s first solo recorded effort, Trace, with Wilco’s debut A.M. At the time, I was leaning toward Trace as the superior effort: it was packed full of great songs, from “Drown” to “Windfall,” and just sounded like the more serious effort.
Since then, Wilco has evolved from its country-punk roots into a nearly unrecognizable indie-rock collective with experimental tendencies – and a much larger fan base. Meanwhile, Jay Farrar soldiers on with Son Volt, staying close to the band’s roots as a serious, country-influenced band with road-weary songs about struggling people and hard-luck places.
I last saw Jay Farrar perform in 2001 – during a solo show at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton in support of his solo album Sebastopol – and then he wore an air of solemnity on his sleeve, playing songs like the bittersweet “Feel Free” and the post-apocalyptic “Barstow” in a tempo that never wavered and a mood that varied only incrementally between sober and stark.
At the time, the overall effect was both sleep- and depression-invoking, so I was plenty glad that Farrar brought a full band with him to the Egg for the Son Volt show last week – even if it represented an entirely different lineup from the Son Volt of old. Farrar’s new band – guitarist and fiddler Gary Hunt, bassist Andrew Duplantis, pedal steel and keyboard player Mark Spencer and drummer Jay Edwards – opened the show with a cover-filled set of hard-country classics as Colonel Ford.
They brought a welcome honky-tonk vibe to Son Volt’s set as well, even if it was toned down a tad once Farrar took the stage. Son Volt’s latest recording, Honky Tonk, released this year, was inspired by the classic honky-tonk sound of Bakersfield, California, and it represents a continuation of Farrar’s shift on recent albums toward more acoustic-based music.
The Egg set began with “Down to the Wire” – an archetypal Farrar tune about lost dreams and soiled landscapes – from Son Volt’s 2009 album American Central Dust. Relating warmly to an audience is definitely not Farrar’s strong suit – unlike the often-jovial Tweedy, he rarely said a word onstage. But one of Farrar’s solid strengths is the vividness of his lyrics. From Honky Tonk, “Brick Walls” was a well-drawn song about encountering brick walls, rather than bridges, on the way to a lover’s heart, while “Wild Side” evoked the headiness of living in a world of “smoke and dim lights.”
The band hit its stride at the end of the set, as Son Volt returned to a pair of its best-known songs, “Voodoo Candle” and “Drown,” and they really started firing on “Afterglow 61,” a rocker from Okemah and the Melody of Riot that paid tribute to the legendary Highway 61. An encore hit the welcome notes of “Tear Stained Eye” and “Windfall” – two of the best from Trace – while a set-finishing cover of “Stop the World and Let Me Off” had a shuffling, joyous feel.
Martin Benjamin’s photograph at Metroland
SON VOLT SET LIST
Down to the Wire
Strength and Doubt
Highways and Cigarettes
Down the Highway
No Turning Back
Bandages and Scars
Hearts and Minds
Tear Stained Eye
Stop the World and Let Me Off (Patsy Cline)
COLONEL FORD SET LIST
Another Day, Another Dollar (Porter Wagoner)
The Old Home Place
Whiskey River (Willie Nelson)
For Lovin’ Me (Gordon Lightfoot)
Wasted Days and Wasted Nights (Freddy Fender)
If You Ain’t Lovin’ (You Ain’t Livin’) (Faron Young)
White Lightning (George Jones)
Lonesome Tears in MY Eyes (Johnny Burnette)
Train of Love (Johnny Cash)