By Max Stewart
If Alt-Country was a required college course, you better well study up on Jay Farrar for the final exam. Songwriter-guitarist Farrar started Son Volt in the wake of Uncle Tupelo’s unceremonious breakup in 1994– a band he was in with fellow songwriter Jeff Tweedy. Tweedy would obviously go on to form Wilco, who has stylistically evolved into Experimental/Alt Rock over the years.
Farrar, however, has by-and-large stayed true to his love of twangy guitars and sincere lyricism, making Son Volt a staple in the Alt-Country scene. Not to say the band’s sound hasn’t progressed, as there have been a lot of Folk, Americana, and Rockabilly nuggets in their catalogue, and their most recent album, Notes of Blue, has a heavy Blues influence. Moreover, Notes of Blue is their best release since 1994’s Trace, and Son Volt’s return-to-form new material sounded right at home amongst older songs at Washington D.C.’s 9:30Club to a crowd made up primarily of long-time Farrar faithfuls.
The set opened with a song from Notes of Blue, “Lost Souls,” with Farrar’s brooding lyrics layered over a fuzzy guitar part marched us through the muck before the full band kicked in like a refreshing exhale: “Let the music play on, this world won’t give us the time”.
Farrar has never shied away from drawing from the darker parts of this world in his songwriting, giving Son Volt an authentic, hard-hitting edge. The songs of the evening ranged from ominous, introspective (“Dynamite,” “Midnight,” “Still Be Around”) to riff-wailing scorchers (“Buzz and Grind,” “Drown,” “Sinking Down”). The blend of upbeat, danceable songs intermixed with down-tempo, acoustic ballads kept the concert fresh at every turn and the Tuesday night audience on its feet.
“Cherokee St.” stomped along like Johnny Cash playing in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. There ain’t nothing wrong with wearing your influences on your sleeve, and Farrar has stated that Notes of Blue was inspired in part by formative Bluesmen such as Skip James and Mississippi Fred McDowell. You could feel that raw undertone on “Static” too, which also had a ferocious Punk sensibility without being too confrontational. Farrar’s solo material was represented in “Damn Shame,” a welcomed hooky addition marked by Farrar’s classic, tongue-in-cheek snarl: “Hang a left on the high road, see where it takes you…”. Another left-turn of the evening occurred on the dusty Folk-fueled “The Picture,” which had some Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan vibes when Farrar threw on the harmonica to replace the brass arrangement of the studio version.
“Always good to be back at the 9:30 Club,” in a rare moment of Farrar on-stage banter before he eased into the fan-favorite, “Tear Stained Eye.” The song’s powerful imagery resonated in the room as the lyrics reference the Mississippi floods of 1993 where folks came from near-and-far to help build a levee to “hold back the water” from the town of St. Genevieve, MO.
Guitarist Chris Frame showcased his splintering slide guitar aptitude during a high-energy instrumental section of the set for the superb bottleneck tune from the new record, “Sinking Down.” “Ten Second News” slow-going drawl (which I have always felt has a Nirvana Unplugged feel to it) shined in the live setting thanks to Mark Spencer taking on lap steel guitar in sync with Frame’s licks without muddying the guitar-heavy waters. The same holds true for “Driving the View”, where the band incorporated three guitars while gracefully avoiding any onstage cacophony.
One of the strongest songs on the new album, “Back Against the Wall,” has the catchiness of Petty with the heart of Springsteen, and should be an uplifting addition to many future Son Volt shows. “Bandages & Scars” felt very Neil Young & Crazy Horse, both in live interpretation and worldly-minded lyrical content: “Blame it on the system, those that came before … Thinking about the ozone, thinking about lead, thinking about the future, and what to do then”.
In addition to Blues, Farrar has said that Notes of Blue drew inspiration from late Folk statesman Nick Drake, which was evident in the perseverant “Promise the World” (“Don’t get down when the cavalry doesn’t arrive… There will be damage, there will be hell to pay; light after darkness, that is the way”) and the mystical “Cairo and Southern”.
Mark Patterson (Drums) and Andrew Duplantis (Bass) kept the rhythm section tight throughout the evening, with Cowboy hat-rockin’ Patterson serving the song and Duplantis all smiles to the fans in the front row, collectively providing the oomph that made the songs swing. The main set ended with three tried-and-true rockers in a row that prove that at the end of the day, Son Volt can turn it to 11 and kick some tail: “Drown” and “Route” from Trace, and “Afterglow 61” from 2005’s Okemah & The Melody of Riot. The three couples standing next to me (and virtually everyone in the venue) lost it upon hearing the distorted one-two punch of “Drown” / “Route”, clearly a doted throwback to days of yore on the band’s debut album.
Returning to the stage for an encore, the band worked their way through three Uncle Tupelo songs (“Still Be Around,” “Graveyard Shift” and “Chickamunga”), all greeted with ear-to-ear smiles and adoration from the crowd. “Graveyard Shift” was the most Rock ‘N’ Roll moment of the evening, surely met with a fair share of beer spills as the audience collectively head-bobbed and bounced to the opener of Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression. Somewhat loosely defined, the subgenre of Alt-Country really took shape after Uncle Tupelo released that record in 1990, an album that at its core is Country, but has sprinkles of Rock, Punk Rock, Bluegrass, Folk, and others in the batter.
“Windfall” is about as earnest a moment as the band has had to date. Couples embraced and sang along to the bluegrass-y melody that suggests life will work itself out if we keep to the straight and narrow: “May the wind take your troubles away, both feet on the floor, two hands on the wheel, may the wind take your troubles away”. The band ended a second encore with an astounding version of Rolling Stones’ “Happy” off of Exile on Main Street, an unexpected surprise to end the evening.
Son Volt are really hitting their stride with the release of Notes of Blue, an album that appears to be giving the band a fresh wind in their sails after a storied, 23+ year career. I spoke to a couple of long-time fans from Maryland after the show who have seen numerous Son Volt performances over the years and have been around since the Uncle Tupelo days, and both agreed that Farrar and company sound as tight as ever. Could the inclusion of not one but three Uncle Tupelo songs be Farrar’s embrace of his former band as he gets a little older, and him maybe cracking open the door to more Uncle Tupelo projects down the line? Who knows, but honestly, Farrar is in an ideal place as-is. Son Volt is at a point now where they have encapsulated the Alt-Country sound and the live show is a testament to that fact. The band’s complement of lyrical prowess and overdrive grit is the ultimate musical antidote for any fan, and the strong new record only augments the excellence of the band as a live act. If Son Volt rolls through your town, I would highly suggest checking them out. And, yes, that will be on the final.
Son Volt – 4.11.17 – 9:30 Club – Washington, D.C.
Set: Lost Souls, Buzz and Grind (Gob Iron), Static, Damn Shame (Jay Farrar), Cherokee Street, The Picture, Dynamite, Tear Stained Eye, Midnight, Sinking Down, Back Into Your World, Catching On, Cairo and Southern, Ten Second News, Promise the World, Back Against Wall, Bandages & Scars, Driving the View, Route, Drown, Afterglow 61
E1:Still Be Around (Uncle Tupelo), Windfall, Graveyard Shift (Uncle Tupelo), Chickamunga (Uncle Tupelo)
E2: Happy (Rolling Stones cover)