In the winter of 2001, Jay Farrar’s Sebastopol was one of a handful of albums that served as a salve for some psychological blues that I had recently brought upon myself. Unlike Farrar’s earlier, more straight-ahead rock albums with Son Volt, Sebastopol found Farrar straying just far enough from traditional rock arrangements and instrumentation to give his understated approach to songwriting some sorely needed dynamic variation. The result was surprisingly uplifting—best demonstrated by the soaring optimism of the windswept anthem “Feel Free”.
Later that same year, Farrar stopped by Indianapolis to play the Vogue. I was all psyched to see him bring the florid buoyancy of Sebastopol to life, and was deeply disappointed to find that not only did he not bring a band along with him, but he also neglected to bring the aggressively innovative attitude that one assumed must have brought about Sebastopol‘s creation. There we stood that night, in the mostly empty Vogue, faced with the same old demure, detached Farrar. He stood before us somberly and slogged through his set as if he couldn’t get through it quickly enough.
Though that was the only time I had seen Farrar, I’ve since heard various accounts of his performances from others. Most people suggested that if Farrar ever was much of a live performer (and many argued that he wasn’t) his best days ended with the break-up of Son Volt. Most people said that to see him these days is to see a past-his-prime artist who takes himself far too seriously to give the audience what it wants. Now it would be hard to argue that Farrar cares at all about what audiences want, but after seeing him at Birdy’s the other night, I do believe that I can make an argument for my man’s merit as a live performer.
When I first walked in, the smoke haze and humming cloud of conversation that ebbed just below the sound of Farrar’s acoustic guitar and sinuous baritone seemed to signify that everything was in its usual place. The rest of the audience and myself were ostensibly in for another night of Farrar grudgingly obliging a crowd who, by and large, were really just there hoping to hear some old Uncle Tupelo songs, and perhaps a couple off of the first Son Volt album—maybe “Tear Stained Eye”, or if we were especially lucky, “Windfall”.
So I spent the first few minutes of Farrar’s set sipping my Miller High Life and cursing myself for missing opening act Canyon, whose latest psychedeli-country album Empty Rooms reveals a young band just finding its voice, and unafraid to try daring—if at times ill-advised—sonic tricks. Four or five songs into his set, Farrar must have sensed my disappointment, for he summoned all five of the members of Canyon onto the stage, and the whole lot of them launched into an all-out version of—what else?—“Feel Free”. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was at least promising, and everyone in the club seemed to slouch a little less, and to swivel and sway a little more. Suddenly, we had a veritable rock show on our hands.
At first, Farrar maintained his stone-like stoicism as the band rocked rather tentatively. That was okay, though, because now the stage was a colorful spectacle to behold: guitarists Joe Winkle and Brandon Butler lined up to the right of Jay, while bassist Evan Berodt and keyboardist Derry DeBorja filled out the space to his left, all but obscuring drummer Dave Bryson. It took a couple of songs, but after awhile, Farrar and Canyon started to exude something hazily similar to energy. This young and clearly hungry rock band seemed to breathe life into Farrar’s gloom folk-singin’ world. Together, they rollicked breezily through the oddly groovy “Damn Shame”. They made the sullen, drink-soaked tale of resignation “Barstow” brim with life. And they helped Farrar bring to bear the painful poignancy of “Drain”. Most astonishingly, for their encore, they performed a white-hot, out-of-left-field version of Pink Floyd’s “Lucifer Sam.” It was surreal at first, as you can imagine, but it quickly turned sublime as they drove furiously toward a climax of torrid, primal noise.
After that was over, and the whole crowd had a sort of post-coital, slackened look about them, Farrar came back one last time, alone, with just an acoustic guitar. He played “Tear Stained Eye” and “Windfall”. In the wake of the hammering rock and roll that preceded this, the songs took on a special kind of loveliness. And anyway, we could forgive Jay his dreariness now. He’d earned our respect and attention.