I’ll admit it: my mom took me to my first rock concert. (Thanks, Ma.) The year was 1993 and I was an impressionable 15-year-old whose primary source of musical education was the local oldies radio station. The show was part of Michelle Shocked’s round robin tour for her Arkansas Traveler album, and consisted of herself, Taj Mahal, a decimated lineup of the Band, and Uncle Tupelo. The raggedy, flannel-clad Uncle Tupelo were the only band on the bill I had not heard of, but I left the show that night forever changed by their set. They were a flash of white light in an otherwise dim night of aging folkies, raising the decibel threshold in the moderately sized concert hall to a level approaching rapture. The ease with which they stormed into my little central Maine town and split eardrums with amplified versions of “I Wish My Baby Was Born” and “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” earned my vote instantly. Hello, sweet revelation!
Cut to 11 years later: Jay Farrar, founding member of the now-defunct Uncle Tupelo and its subsequent band Son Volt, is seeing the release of Stone, Steel & Bright Lights, his first official live album. Solo albums have been rough going for Farrar since he defined the alternative country genre with one band and entrenched his position in it with the next. Both Sebastopol and Terroir Blues failed to match the essence of his esteemed pedigree, almost as if he’s going through the motions while waiting for his lost muse to return.
The original songs on Stone, Steel & Bright Lights are all songs from these solo albums, performed during Farrar’s 2003 fall tour. As his backing band, the DC-based quintet Canyon does a respectable job of supporting Farrar’s road-weary tunes, even if their approach is that of hired guns rather than independent improvisers.
Not surprisingly, the best songs here are the strongest tracks from their respective albums. Highlights include the lap steel-driven “Damn Shame”; the enveloping “Feel Free”, with its shimmering tremolo guitar; the subversive melodies of “All of Your Might”; the propulsive rock of “Make It Alright”; and the thumping tension of “Feed Kill Chain”. One thing noticeably missing is a harmony vocal; apparently no one in Canyon sings backup, or perhaps it was planned that way from the start. Farrar’s distinctive voice, while achingly august, often benefits from some choice harmonies; the performances here could only have been enriched by their inclusion.
Two new songs appear early on the disc, including the expansive open chord strum of “Doesn’t Have to Be This Way”. Farrar forgoes his typically oblique lyrical style to directly address the contemporary climate of the world: “A poor man’s wages carry their feet / A dead soldier today in the sweltering heat / A dynasty in power, two wars to their name / An election by decree, ain’t this new world a shame”. The other new offering, “6 String Belief”, features Farrar alone on guitar and is considerably less effective, as it feels like it’s still in a drafting stage.
The band really comes alive on the final two tracks, both of which are cover songs. They take Pink Floyd’s “Lucifer Sam” on set it on fire, turning its psychedelic origins on its head and interpreting it as a muscular barnburner. Likewise, the version of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane” is just as inspired, with Farrar unabashedly tearing into the song’s guitar solo, his amplifier on the verge of a meltdown. I’m reminded once again of the power that Farrar possesses (and has caged over recent years), especially his overlooked guitar slinging in Uncle Tupelo’s past (“Chickamauga”, anyone?). After the disc finished, I found myself wishing that Farrar’s own songs would have been approached with the same heated fervor.
Included with the disc is an 11-song DVD from Farrar’s performance at Slim’s in San Francisco. Its selection of songs doesn’t differ from those on the CD, and the renditions are virtually identical (even though the venue is not). But it’s a nice companion piece to have, and Farrar enthusiasts will certainly enjoy its small wealth of good moments.