First off, in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I am a huge fan of Uncle Tupelo, Jay Farrar's now-legendary first band that breathed new life into country rock by infusing it with the sound and sensibility of punk. I had even once convinced my wife to give our first-born daughter the middle name "Anodyne" after Uncle Tupelo's last and greatest album. Luckily for our daughter, we opted for "Lucinda" instead. Even though my musical tastes have moved off in different directions, periodically I will still put an old Uncle Tupelo CD on, or listen to one of the many bootlegs I acquired, and marvel at the energy, passion and beauty of the music produced by three young guys from Belleville, Ill.
After leaving Uncle Tupelo in 1994, Jay Farrar, the band's primary singer and songwriter, created Son Volt, another of the leading lights of the alternative country music scene. Their first two albums, "Trace" and "Straightaways," stand as some of the best music produced during the alt-country era. Alt-country was supposed to be the new grunge, and people like Jay Farrar were supposed to become big stars, but it never really happened, and great bands like Son Volt eventually broke up.
My bet is that Jay Farrar is at least somewhat pleased that he is no longer the "next big thing." He never seemed too comfortable in the spotlight. I've rarely seen a rock star less interested in being a rock star. Hiding his eyes behind a mop of brown hair, Farrar rarely spoke to the audience, offering his fans little clue about his personal life. His lyrics often seemed as opaque as his stage persona.
Since 2001, he has quietly released a series of solo albums that have expanded his fairly traditional musical style into more sophisticated sounds and arrangements. Perhaps some of the youthful passion and hunger seemed absent, but Farrar was maturing, artistically and personally. His latest, "Stone, Steel and Bright Lights," is a collection of live performances from his three solo releases.
For this album, Farrar has decided to emphasize his songs. And, indeed, he has become a compelling songwriter, using abstract nouns and images to paint sharp pictures of life in the 21st century. Also, not since the early years of Uncle Tupelo has Farrar's writing been so overtly political. One of the two new songs on the album, the acoustic "Doesn't Have to Be This Way" sounds like a musical version of "Fahrenheit 9/11": "A poor man's wages carry their feet, a dead soldier today in the sweltering heat. A dynasty in power, two wars to their name. An election by decree. Ain't this new world a shame?"
But Farrar's most unique quality remains his voice: World-weary and foghorn-like, it seemed a little out of place coming from Uncle Tupelo's 22-year-old lead singer. But now, with 15 years of life and musical experience, Farrar's rich baritone has become more resonant. What his voice lacks in range, Farrar makes up in emotional expressiveness.
While the quality of his solo work has been somewhat inconsistent, "Stone, Steel and Bright Lights" collects his best songs as a solo performer. And in the live setting, freed from the enticement of studio tricks and effects, Farrar brings a new intensity to the songs. The Washington, D.C., group Canyon serves as Farrar's backing band on the album, and despite the fact that they had not played together before their tour in the fall of 2003, they sound great. Farrar seems energized by the five-piece band's forceful sound, as old songs like "Vitamins," "Voodoo Candle" and "Feed Kill Chain" achieve a power lacking on their original studio versions. Yet Farrar can still dish out brooding dirges with the best of them, as "Cahokian" proves.
By the end of the CD, Farrar and his backup band cut loose and launch into killer versions of Syd Barrett's "Lucifer Sam" and Neil Young's "Like a Hurricane." Both of these covers also appear on the 11-song concert DVD that comes with the album.
On Friday, July 30, Jay Farrar comes back to Jackson to play at Hal & Mal's. Accompanied by sideman extraordinaire, Mark Spencer (formerly of the Blood Oranges), Farrar will play selections from the live album and may even throw in a few Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt tunes. Brandon Butler, formerly of Canyon, opens.
Jackson fans showed their deep respect to Mr. Farrar by talking and cell-phoning throughout his set. Thankfully the PA guy turned the system up to drown them out a bit. As Sam Beam from Iron & Wine asked at Martin's last year, "Isn't there a bar where you guys can go for free and talk?"
Just like the last time American Analog Set played Martins. The crowd talked/ignored the band cause the band was quiet,... had been rocking loud from the opening band. The crowd was ticked at band, band ticked at crowd = crap show. It sucks when that happens.
it ticks me off when folks yap during shows, too. sometimes it's like "feeding the trolls" to say anything, because that usually starts the cycle herman refers to. my favorite is the screaming. the drunk girl at the bar who is literally SCREAMING about something her drunk friend said that she found funny. always an impressive show of class.
anyway. the real reason i'm posting: did anyone happen to catch josh little's opening set for paul burch a few weeks back? it was him alone, minus the grocers, and a crowd of about 25 was seated at the first few booths and tables and for the entirety of his 30-odd minute set, NO ONE SPOKE. chubb killed most of the lights, and josh worked his magic with just his voice and a guitar. it was, for lack of a less-cheesy adjective, magical.
and boy was luann proud...
Josh is a very talented guy. He's Jackson's own Lou Reed. Wish I would've seen it.