“Son Volt vs. Wilco” was the headline last week in one of Boulder’s daily newspapers heralding the concurrent arrival of the two groups to the area. It was as though the bands, both rising over a decade ago from the ashes of Uncle Tupelo, were going to stage a ritualistic gang fight.
“Who would win?” I wondered. Sure, Wilco’s current six-piece lineup has the number advantage over Son Volt’s four-piece. But listen to Jay Farrar on those early Tupelo records-you’ll hear that he’s got some serious rage in that voice of his. He may have stifled most of it in his subsequent recorded output, but all that bottled up anger has gotta resurface sometime, right? If I was a betting man, I’d put my money on Son Volt.
Alas, my daydream of a knock down, drag out alt-country brawl on the streets of Boulder was not to be. Wilco and Son Volt simply came to town to play their respective gigs-the former at the massive Red Rocks Amphitheater and the latter at the decidedly less massive Fox Theatre. The difference in venues illuminated the unexpected career paths Farrar and his erstwhile comrade Jeff Tweedy have followed since the breakup of their former band.
Tweedy and Wilco have seen their star rise steadily, despite (or perhaps because of) radical shifts in sound and style. Meanwhile, since the release of the first Son Volt record, 1995’s masterful Trace, Farrar’s stature has diminished considerably. He still retains a hardcore fan base, and it’s a mistake to dismiss his recent solo records outright, but the spark of brilliance seems to have left him.
In order to jumpstart his creativity and career, Farrar has reformed Son Volt, after over five years of inactivity. Well, sort of. The Son Volt that took the stage at the Fox Theatre was not the same one that played on the band’s three ‘90s albums. A true reunion was planned, but a last minute business dispute with Farrar sent the original players packing. What was left were the songwriter himself and a bunch of songs written with Son Volt in mind, but without the band itself to record them. To its credit, the hastily convened group that is featured on the forthcoming Okemah and the Melody of Riot (a terrible title, even by Farrar’s standards) sounds a whole lot like Son Volt. If I didn’t know it beforehand, I’d swear it was the original band.
Onstage, too, this new Son Volt sounded almost exactly like the band of old. The main difference was that the set leaned heavily on the band’s rockier songs. The first eight or so tunes Farrar and Co. played were loud, concise volleys of politically tinged roots rock drawn exclusively from the new record. The songwriter seems to be using the Son Volt moniker as a vehicle for his more raucous tunes, perhaps saving his more introspective works for future solo releases. Which is fine-Farrar can write a fuzz-laden Crazy Horse-style anthem with the best of them. At this show, however, the pacing felt a bit off. The band came out blasting and kept on blasting until the new songs began to sound like simply one big blast. It was exhilarating at first, but a bit exhausting as the night wore on.
The band also dipped into some of the earlier songs, predictably earning the biggest cheers of the night. Almost ten years later the ragged glory of “Loose String” and “Route” still sound great. “Drown”, the band’s closest thing to a hit, still sounded lame, at least to these ears.
Farrar, never a particularly charismatic onstage presence, remained stoic throughout the main set, and his new bandmates followed his lead. Occasionally, the lead guitarist would strike a rock star pose, only to glance over at his motionless boss, and then stop. All in all, a solid, if workmanlike set. Nothing particularly bad about it, but transcendent moments, if they were there at all, were few and far between.
It was only in the closing encore that things truly came to life. On a churning cover of R.L. Burnside’s moody blues “Goin’ Down South”, Farrar moaned and hollered the repetitive lyrics over a hypnotic groove. Suddenly, the band was awake-for the first time that night, there was a sense of spontaneity in the room. As Farrar started shaking a tortured solo out of his guitar (he had stuck mainly to rhythm until then), it was almost like a new, unpredictable, and slightly dangerous band had taken the stage. The momentum continued on a beautiful, windswept rendition of Neil Young’s “Cortez The Killer”. Farrar, again taking long, blissed out guitar solos, suddenly seemed like he was enjoying himself. As Son Volt II finished the song and left the stage for the last time, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why couldn’t the whole show have been like that?