Son Volt Hasn’t Changed

Jay Farrar’s trio lets the songs do the heavy lifting live

Last June, Jeff Tweedy played a sold-out performance at the Texas Union Ballroom. During the June performance, the Wilco singer charmed with his customary between-song knee-slappers and witty anecdotes. Friday night, Jay Farrar left no ticket unsold under the same roof as his former Uncle Tupelo bandmate, this time at Cactus Cafe’s Texas Union Theater.

The acrimonious 1994 dissolution of the Bellville, IL-based pair’s erstwhile alt-country outfit spurred a now notable Americana schism, pitting Tweedy (who rallied Wilco) vs. Farrar (who founded Son Volt). Onstage, the latter songsmith appeared nearly identical to his Nineties regnant – boyish face, sideburns – but lent little energy toward cajoling the local crowd.

Jay Farrar at the Texas Union Theatre, 11.13.15 (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Commemorating the 20th anniversary of Son Volt’s acclaimed 1995 debut Trace, the historically mum bandleader uttered next to nothing during the 90-minute gig. Backed by pedal steel ace Eric Heywood and guitarist Gary Hunt, who also tackled fiddle for some songs, Farrar commenced the album tribute with its Guthrie-esque stunner “Tear-Stained Eye,” the 48-year-old singer taking liberty to shuffle the LP’s original order.

“It’s good to see y’all,” he nodded, stoic but warm.

Songs upheld their bare-boned goodness two decades on, though the trio’s stripped delivery meant some fine bits were overlooked. The twang-rock riff of “Drown,” for instance, got skipped despite Hunt’s Telecaster presence in recreating the single.

“This here’s a steel guitar cage match,” smiled Farrar before moody beaut “Ten Second News,” a hands-down standout.

“Windfall” closed the set’s front half, its lyrics particularly significant given the tragedy that occurred in Paris just hours before. “May the wind take your troubles away,” sang Farrar. For that moment, the room acquiesced.

With the main event wrapped, the trio hit Farrar’s 2001 solo bow Sebastopol for “Barstow,” then Honky Tonk cuts “Brick Walls” and “Seawall.” For the latter, the St. Louis dweller subbed “God save the Queen of Kingman, Arizona,” for the auspicious “Austin, Texas,” to the easy delight of many. 1997’s Straightaways was rightfully tapped via “Back Into Your World,” and Farrar handled a harmonica for set closer “The Picture.”

Gig winding down, its lack of percussion plus the frontman’s distant delivery eventually bordered on bland.

“Thanks, folks,” he waved, exiting the stage.

Seconds later, the group returned for an encore, now joined by the evening’s opener, local singer-songwriter-bassist Andrew Duplantis. The part-time SV member added acoustic bass for Western waltz “Hearts and Minds,” his steady pluck providing a welcome percussive pulse to the Honky Tonk opener. A cover of Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” followed, the foursome concluding on a jocular note.

“Thanks! Good night! See ya!”

Afterward, fans flocked to the merch table for Trace’s 20th anniversary CD and LP reissues, tucking purchases under their arms like fragile treasures. Staleness may’ve preceded in the charisma department, but the Missourian always allotted his songs the heavy lifting. And Jay Farrar’s fortunate.

When songs are as timeless as his, the music speaks for itself.

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Son Volt, Jay Farrar, Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Jeff Tweedy, Eric Heywood, Gary Hunt, Andrew Duplantis, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie

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