Concert Review: Son Volt at The Ark, Ann Arbor, MI, 6/9/13


Jay Farrar smiled twice last night. This may not seem like particularly momentous information, but, though I don’t know what the man is like in his private life, based on his public life over the last 23 years, Jay Farrar seems to smile about as often as a solar eclipse takes place. So the fact that he treated the crowd at the Ark in Ann Arbor to not one, but two smiles, in addition to a congenial (for him) “Hey, how y’all doin’?” was actually cause for interest.

Maybe it was an indication of how comfortable Farrar is with the latest incarnation of his band, Son Volt. He has no reason not to be, since, after all, the band has had a revolving door membership policy and thus has served as little more than a vehicle for Farrar’s whims ever since the original lineup took a (permanent, it turns out) hiatus after touring behind 1999’s Wide Swing Tremelo. One could say the same thing about his nemesis and former bandmate in Uncle Tupelo, Jeff Tweedy and his band Wilco, of course. But at least Wilco still features original member John Stiratt, and hasn’t undergone a lineup change since 2004. By comparison, the longest-tenured current member of Son Volt besides Farrar is now bassist Andrew Duplantis, who joined when Farrar, after releasing a couple of (unfairly, perhaps) quickly forgotten solo albums, revived the Son Volt name for 2005’s Okemah And The Melody Of Riot. That album was Farrar’s most raucous and electric since Uncle Tupelo’s Still Feel Gone in 1991, but Son Volt’s sound has mellowed out—and gotten significantly more country-influenced—since.

It’s also become far more one-dimensional than it was in the band’s mid-90s heyday, and that was highly evident at the Ark last night. Son Volt’s inarguable masterpiece, 1995’s Trace (in that it is both inarguably a masterpiece and inarguably the only masterpiece in Farrar’s notoriously inconsistent post-Tupelo catalog) was great largely because it contained songs far better than any Farrar has written since, but also because of how those songs were sequenced: a seamless alternating between searing electric rockers and cathartic country-influenced acoustic strummers. The two sides of Farrar’s songwriting that he developed in Uncle Tupelo shared equal time and contrasted in breathtaking fashion. By comparison, Son Volt’s new record, Honky Tonk, is a tightly played but largely uninspiring collection of one slow, formulaic country song after another. And honestly, that assessment could almost be used to describe the first two thirds of Son Volt’s set at the Ark. Pacing is important, folks, and although Farrar isn’t the world’s most diverse songwriter, he didn’t have to write a setlist that had like fourteen slow acoustic songs in a row, now matter how beautiful and well-written some of them were. It also doesn’t help that the ultra-introverted Farrar has the stage presence of a drooping ficus plant.

OK, so maybe Farrar just wanted to showcase the particular skill set of the current lineup, which showed its predilection for country music in a Farrar-less opening set as Colonel Ford. They played a loose, jammy, jovial set of country covers ranging from the hokey and obscure (“If You Ain’t Loving, You Ain’t Living”) to the more well-known (“White Lightning,” Johnny Cash’s “Train Of Love”). The musicianship was unfailingly superb, thanks to bespectacled, gray-haired guitarist Gary Hunt (a local musician from Son Volt’s home base of St. Louis who joined the band in 2012) and supremely talented multi-instrumentalist Mark Spencer (who has been playing with Farrar since the early 2000s but didn’t join Son Volt until 2009). They both got ample opportunity to shine during Son Volt’s set as well; Hunt alternated ably between slick Telecaster licks, fiddle, and on one song, mandolin, while Spencer favors a distorted, meaty pedal steel tone reminiscent of Sneaky Pete Kleinow’s work with the Flying Burrito Brothers in the 60s that always stood out in the mix. For the first song of the encore, before the rest of the band reappeared, the two came out alone to play a droning, ethereal intro to the high-stepping Cajun waltz “Hearts And Minds,” one of Honky Tonk’s only two legitimate entries into the top tier of Farrar’s canon.

Nonetheless, the first 14 songs of the set—all but two drawn from Son Volt’s last three albums—began to blend together at a certain point. Maybe it had something to do with the Ark—a 400-seat venue famous mostly for folk music, thus an ideal place for Baby Boomers to sit and clap politely through the whole set—but the energy level in the room and on stage was fairly low, though a few of the performances were gorgeous (“Hoping Machine,” a song from Farrar’s Woody Guthrie renaissance project, New Multitudes, Honky Tonk’s traditionalist waltz “Down The Highway”).

Then, suddenly, Farrar’s signature cherry red Gretsch electric guitar was brought out, replacing the brown cigar box he’d been unimaginatively strumming along on all night. The band launched into the closest thing Farrar ever had to a hit, Trace’s “Drown,” followed immediately by Okemah’s roaring “Afterglow 61” to close the main set. It suddenly seemed as though a different band had taken the stage; everyone in the room seemed to perk up out of their chairs a few inches; I witnessed some headbanging going on in the front row; even Farrar got a little more animated. This renewed engagement between band and audience continued during the encore, during which Farrar finally rewarded us with the beloved Trace classics “Tear Stained Eye” and “Windfall.” By the time the band wrapped up an infectiously rambunctious cover of Waylon Jennings’ “Stop The World (And Let Me Off)” to close the show, I had forgotten all about what had happened before they had started playing “Drown.” Whether that’s a good or bad sign is another matter.



Down To The Wire / The Picture / Bakersfield / Brick Walls / Strength And Doubt / Dynamite / Highways And Cigarettes / Hoping Machine / Wild Side / Barstow / Dust Of Daylight / Down The Highway / Seawall / No Turning Back / Drown / Afterglow 61 / Encore: Hearts And Minds / Tear Stained Eye / Windfall / Stop The World (And Let Me Off)

Leave a Reply