Jay Farrar and co's lack of visual flair sinks an otherwise-strong set of alt-country tunes.
The long-running TV program Austin City Limits has been one of the few outlets for alt-country music fans to get their fix; over the years, heavy hitters from Steve Earle to Lucinda Williams have graced the ACL stage. The performances are great, but it's only a half-hour show. Bless the ACL people (in combination with New West Records), then, for beginning to release the full performances of these shows on DVD. The first set featured concerts from Earle, Susan Tedeschi, Robert Earl Keen and the Flatlanders (each disc sold separately) and now a second batch of discs, with shows from Miss Williams, Richard Thompson and the subject of this review, Son Volt, is arriving in stores.
Austin City Limits backstory out of the way, now full disclosure: I love me some Son Volt, and have seen frontman Jay Farrar in concert before, albeit as a solo act. The man's been blessed with a voice that sounds like the desert in winter and he's a fantastic songwriter. At the outset of this DVD (the performance was recorded November 11, 1996) the sight of an unassuming Farrar -- messy hair, untucked blue flannel shirt -- and his Son Volt bandmembers (multi-instrumentalist Dave Boquist, bassist Jim Boquist, drummer Dave Heidorn and pedal steel player Eric Heywood) brought back a flood of mid-'90s alt-country nostalgia. With nary a word to the crowd, the band kicks into opener "Route" and I'm reminded of an important fact about Son Volt/Farrar concerts: the songs are great, but the performance is extremely low-energy.
Throughout the sixteen songs on the DVD, Farrar stands stock still at the microphone, eyes half-closed. Son Volt's strength, then and now (I'd be remiss if I failed to mention Farrar has re-formed Son Volt with a new cast of musicians, and Son Volt Mach 2 will have a new album out summer 2005), has always been Farrar's haunting songs; they're no "image band". They're a bunch of guys playing songs about loneliness and the radio; it doesn't make for compelling viewing. Only the sight of Heywood, hunched over a pedal steel guitar on tunes like "Cemetery Savior" and "Too Early", causes any great stir, if only for the "hey, you don't see a pedal steel guitar everyday" factor.
That said, the songs themselves are impeccable. At the time of the ACL performance, Son Volt had one studio album, 1995's marvelous Trace under its belt; on the DVD, the band plays all of Trace (save that album's closing track, a cover of the Faces' "Mystifies Me") and four tunes that would end up on the band's 1997 sophomore disc, Straightaways ("Cemetery Savior", "Back Into Your World", "Left a Slide" and "Picking Up the Signal"). Set opener "Route" is a great country rock road tune, ("The rural route sleeps while the city bleeds all over itself"), anchored by Dave Boquist's lead guitar riff. Really, he's the star of the DVD, jumping from guitar to lazy river banjo on a standout version of "Tear-Stained Eye" to violin for the familiar opening strains of Trace's leadoff track, "Windfall", to a lonely-sounding lap steel on "Ten Second News" (where that instrument is perfectly matched with Farrar's bleak lyrics like "There's a beach there known for cancer").
Additional bonus for fans of Farrar's first group, Uncle Tupelo: He dusts off "True to Life" from 1991's Still Feel Gone and closes the show with "Chickamauga", off 1993's swan song, Anodyne, the latter turning into a mini-jam and one of the few genuinely upbeat tunes in the set.
I'm not sure how or if Son Volt could have put forth a more visually-appealing show, but the money-spending Son Volt fan's best bet would be to hold off on the DVD and buy the CD performance of the show instead. Many of the other ACL shows are also available on CD, presumably this one will be as well. Besides, Son Volt is best enjoyed while driving down a lonely stretch of road at two in the morning, not from the comfort of one's living room.