Son Volt at First Avenue, 6/4/13

Son Volt at First Avenue, 6/4/13
Zach McCormick

Son Volt
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.


Still, the band seemed to be at its best (and enjoying itself most) when they reached back to material with a bit higher of a heart rate. An early standout, "Dynamite," lit up the stage with lyrics about the Fourth of July, and the set finally started to heat up during the outro of "Medication" near the end of the evening. Farrar finally consented to using an electric guitar, which may have helped, and the psych-y country twinkles from Gary Hunt on guitar meshed incredibly well with Farrar's own guitar work. From there on in, Son Volt acknowledged its rocking roots and slashed through two of its greatest songs "Drown" and "Afterglow 61," finally delivering the explosive energy Farrar is known for. One couldn't help but notice that the "honky tonk band", as the frontman had called them, really knew their alt-country territory as well. Mark Spencer's adept pedal steel wound around the vocals to provide rich harmonies in it's own right, and the audience responded to this newfound energy in kind.

But, alas, Son Volt moved briskly passed their alt-country material, returning to mellower fair for the encore. "Windfall" from the band's debut album Trace still elicited a huge cheer though, and made for an excellent sing-along finale to the band's original material for the night. With a quick thank you, Farrar kicked off their closer, a spirited run through the Johnnie and Jack classic "Stop the World (And Let Me Off)" made famous by names like Merle Haggard. The nod to tradition made for a fitting end to the night, closing the book on this newer, more traditionally minded incarnation of Son Volt.

Set List:
Down to the Wire
The Picture
Brick Walls
Strength and Doubt
Highways and Cigarettes
Hoping to See
Wild Side
Dust of Daylight
Down the Highway
No Turning Back
Voodoo Candle
Afterglow 61

Hearts and Minds
Tear Stained Eye
Stop the World (And Let me Off)

Critic's Bias: Uncle Tupelo diehard, but a bit of a fair-weather Son Volt fan.

Overheard in the Crowd: A totally spot-on Dukes-of-Hazard "YeeHaw!" after Colonel Ford did "White Lightning".

Random Notebook Dump: Was hoping Dade Farrar might show up to play a little upright for this set, since he's been popping up at other shows on this tour.

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