Son Volt at First Avenue, 6/4/13
With Colonel Ford
First Avenue Mainroom, Minneapolis
Tuesday, June 4th, 2013
Jay Farrar hasn't always stuck to his guns since the breakup of his seminal, genre-creating work with Uncle Tupleo, but one consistent thread through his winding career has been a stubborn and abiding love for country music's grand traditions. While his legacy as a songwriter is inextricably intertwined with the resurgence of alt-country in the '90s, Farrar has always seemed to set his sights on sounds far older. Ever the iconoclast, Son Volt's frontman followed his muse in late 2012 and early 2013 to Bakersfield, CA, the place where Merle Haggard and Buck Owens first rebelled and against Nashville's slick avarice in the late 1950s.
The result of this journey into the history of country is Son Volt's newest release, appropriately titled Honky Tonk, which also marks yet another change in the band's ever shifting lineup. While it's clear that Farrar is comfortable in his role as axe-man, the sterling rhythm section of Andrew Duplantis and Dave Bryson, active since the band re-formed in 2005, have been mercifully spared from the chopping block. Also retained is pedal-steel wizard and organist Mark Spencer, who backed Farrar on 2009's American Central Dust. However, the centerpiece of the new band is none other than guitarist and support-man Gary Hunt, a St. Louis good 'ol boy who's folksy charm feels as well-weathered as his fading western shirt.
Hunt led the night's opening act, which actually operated in a similar method to an old-fashioned soul revue. Named the "Colonel Ford Volunteers" after the band Hunt leads back in St. Louis, the group that warmed up the mainroom last evening was actually just Son Volt's current lineup, sans Farrar. Mainly concentrating on traditional, no frills honky tonk chestnuts like "For Lovin' Me" by Waylon Jennings with a few Hunt-penned originals thrown in the mix, Colonel Ford felt for all the world like a true-blue roadhouse bar-band. Giving Mark Spencer a chance to flex his muscles on the Telecaster, their brief set was an absolute fireworks display of chickin' pickin' steel-train country guitar.
While the band did little more than stand there and bang out a litany of hits, their level of musicianship almost removes the need for entertaining showcraft. Spencer and Hunt always seemed to find space for another dizzying, lightning-fast solo, whether it was on a funky walk through Shotgun Willie's "Whiskey River" or the gospel and soul inflected "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights," but the two showed admirable poise and restraint, never overwhelming the simple songs for the sake of pyrotechnics.
A few minutes after Colonel Ford closed their set with Johnny Cash's "Train of Love", they returned with Farrar to begin Son Volt's portion of the evening with "Down to the Wire" from Central Dust. The song's midtempo swing would be characteristic of the night's selections from Farrar's extensive catalog of songs. Mostly focusing on the softer, somber side of the band exhibited on its last three studio outings, Son Volt's performance was occasionally sleepy, but built to a fantastic climax.
Brand new songs like "Bakersfield" and "Down the Highway" stick pretty close to the honky tonk format that they emulate, but the results never felt like revivalism. Instead, the progression seems natural for Farrar, who has been drifting towards more traditional sounds in his songwriting over the course of the past decade. There's a formulaic quality to these kind of songs, with familiar chord progressions serving as a template and tried-and-true turnarounds happening at just the right moment. While these kind of touches are like soul food for die-hard Country types, Son Volt could've avoided a pronounced lull in the middle of their set by mixing in some of their more fiery material from the earlier albums. Still, the plaintive, high-lonesome beauty of "Seawall" and "Wild Side" made for achingly tender, tears-in-my-beer moments.