Jay Farrar, Anders ParkerThe Mercury, January 27

Live Shots

Jay Farrar, Anders Parker

The Mercury, January 27

Most of us couldn't see a thing. The earth-toned expanse of the Mercury was a sea of hopeful heads, wreathed in smoke and wondering what would happen next. Anders Parker, opening act and former boss of Varnaline, had been politely received and mildly appreciated. Standing alone in front of a single mike, he covered familiar territory and played some new songs, but the set never shook the feel of an extended warm-up; his guitar rarely went beyond registering melody and chords, and the level of excitement on both sides of the mike kept a too-even keel. When the bespectacled, tousle-headed Farrar took the stage, seated and out of all but the shortest sightlines, the room vibrated with a sense of heightened curiosity rather than a celebratory mood. Ever since Farrar and Jeff Tweedy busted up seminal alt.country band Uncle Tupelo and parted ways, the former putting together Son Volt while the latter founded Wilco, new music from both artists has been painfully anticipated and fiercely debated. What would Farrar, who disbanded Son Volt last year and whose path has held steady in contrast to Tweedy's alt.pop makeover, do next? Why, hold the course, of course, remaining utterly himself; from his impassioned deadpan and pure melodic invention to the fact that visually, he made himself nearly a non-entity, something he pulled center-stage in front of hundreds. But seeing Farrar is hardly the point. Might as well scan the rafters, or pan the faces of those rapt on the empty space in the front of the room, half-lidded eyes making their own stories out of his songs. From the start it was good -- Farrar's acoustic clear and bold, the slight echo on the electric slide of accompanist Mark Spencer just pronounced enough to warm the spaces. Around song number four, "Medicine Hat" off Son Volt's 1998 release Wide Swing Tremolo, it became great, vocal harmonies falling together as if it hadn't ever been any other way. When that led into a revamped "Still Be Around," off Tupelo's 1991 LP Still Feel Gone, the effect was surreal: a mute sing-along with an invisible performer. He covered the breadth of the Son Volt catalog, dotting the way with new songs and old blues, pouring out aching ballads and hymns to the loss of time and love. Encores "Too Early" and "Windfall," live mainstays off '95's Trace, were powerful proof of the vitality that can exist in the finer tunings of style if there's true talent and vision in the creation. Farrar's music hasn't changed because he believes in what he's doing, and he does it better than anyone. No one needed to see his face to understand that.

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