Has there ever been a singer who shied from his spotlight like Jay Farrar? During his recent show at Boulder, Colorado’s Fox Theater, he remained motionless for most of the night. Aside from a few “How ya doin’“s, he barely addressed the audience. At the end of each song, Farrar seemed vaguely embarrassed by the applause. Dressed more like a salesman than a rock star, he looked eager to be anywhere except onstage.
These observations are nothing new for those who have followed Farrar’s career even casually. The songwriter has an unshakeable reputation as something of a cold fish in live settings. Ever since his days fronting Uncle Tupelo with Jeff Tweedy, Farrar’s refused to ingratiate himself with his audience. As a result, he comes across aloof, even uninterested at times. He doesn’t seem to be having very much fun.
Few artists could get away with such an attitude for very long, much less over a decade and a half. But Farrar is different. For one thing, there’s that voice. Like Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, or even Michael Stipe, there’s something in Farrar’s authoritative vocals that make him stand out above the rest. There’s a quality that makes most anyone who hears him stop cold and say, “Who is that?” Farrar could be the ugliest, most annoying guy in the world, and his voice would still demand attention.
Then there are the songs: “Still Be Around”, “Slate”, “Windfall”, “Tear Stained Eye”, “Too Early”. These are songs that stand with the best of Hank Williams, Dylan, or any other major American songwriter you’d care to mention. True, the songs I’ve just named were written quite a while ago—Farrar hasn’t penned a stone-cold classic in several years. But many lesser songwriters would kill to have written any one of those songs.
So there are a few reasons why shy, unassuming Jay Farrar was playing to a packed house in Boulder on this particular night. Accompanied by guitarist Mark Spencer (formerly of the Blood Oranges), Farrar mostly played tunes off of his recent solo records, Sebastopol and Terroir Blues. These albums are not quite as good as the man’s die-hard fans might tell you, but not nearly as bad as detractors claim. Rather, they’re transitional records that show Farrar indulging in a bit of studio experimentation and exposing some serious psychedelic-rock leanings. They’re not a patch on Son Volt’s Trace, the album that, so far, stands as Farrar’s masterpiece, but Sebastopol and Terroir Blues are certainly not without their charms. And a night filled with live renditions of their strongest cuts ain’t a bad way to spend a Saturday night.
They may not be much as showmen, but Farrar and Spencer make quite a musical team. Farrar stuck to acoustic, while Spencer, on electric guitar and occasional lap steel, staked out the previously unexplored territory between the country rock virtuosity of ex-Byrds guitarist Clarence White, and the moody atmospherics of mid-‘70s Robert Fripp. Armed with a battery of effects pedals at his feet, Spencer’s fiery, imaginative solos threatened several times to completely steal the show. Not that Farrar would have minded, of course. Indeed, the moments where the songwriter seemed most engaged were during the instrumental breaks, as Spencer wrung increasingly wild sounds out of his guitar.
In previewing the concert, Boulder’s newspapers made a big point of Farrar’s “new political songwriting”, which was odd. Hadn’t they ever heard Uncle Tupelo? Farrar wasn’t writing explicitly “protest” songs then, but songs like “Criminals”, “Grindstone”, and “Graveyard Shift” were politically charged, to say the least. Farrar’s latest release, the live Stone, Steel and Bright Lights, features “Doesn’t Have to Be This Way” and “Six-String Belief”, both of which are preoccupied with the current political climate. Farrar played them both in concert, and while they both boasted strong melodies, they fell short as rousing anthems. More impressionistic fare like “Voodoo Candle” and “Feed Kill Chain” came across much better.
Farrar saved most of his “hits” for the encores, with “Tear Stained Eye” and “Windfall” initiating the night’s heartiest singalongs. He and Spencer also gamely covered the Byrds’ “Drugstore Truck Driving Man”, in honor of the show’s sponsor, Boulder independent radio station KCUV. When Farrar hit the song’s satirical chorus, a faint trace of a grin appeared on his lips. Maybe he was having fun. Or maybe not. It was hard to tell.