Canyon / Jay Farrar – Metro (Chicago, IL)
In the wake of Son Volt’s late-1999 split, Jay Farrar worked with artists ranging from Gillian Welch to Superchunk’s Jon Wurster, released two albums and an EP, and played a couple hundred shows across North America and Europe. He wrote songs in slack-key tunings, dabbled with tape manipulation, collaborated with a flutist, and — in a move that likely surprised the folks behind the Jay Farrar Ascetic Lifestyle website — issued a beat-heavy remix of the tune “Damn Shame”.
Farrar did all of that in four years, but there was one conspicuous thing he never did: Tour with a full band. So when, after the release of the ruminative, poetic disc Terroir Blues, he booked dates with the echo-worshipping twang-rock outfit Canyon serving as both opener and backup, most Farrarophiles were thrilled.
Sure, it wasn’t exactly Dylan and The Band. But at the tour’s Chicago stop, support from the D.C.-based quintet meant a chance for fans to hear material such as the ramshackle “Fool King’s Crown” reframed as a percussive stomp. The lineup’s two electric guitars and lap steel swelled the melody of “All Of Your Might” into a thick, rich swirl. And the many helping hands freed Farrar to take an all-too-rare electric lead in a desperate jam on Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane”.
Maybe inevitably, though, much of the gig didn’t match in practice what it promised in theory. Among the flaws: Joe Winkle’s lead guitar was walloped by Farrar and Brandon Butler’s twin rhythm lines in a poor initial mix, and Derrick DeBorja’s keys were buried throughout. The band seemed stiff and tentative in the early going, and Farrar’s interaction with them was almost nonexistent; his typical stony silence didn’t smooth the transitions between songs. Even when bridged by bits of the tape loops Farrar calls “space junk,” the constant pauses to change or re-tune guitars were a momentum drain.
An uncreative set list didn’t help the pacing problems. The full-band portion unfurled like this: Two songs from Sebastopol, seven from Terroir Blues, eight more from Sebastopol, curtain.
The highlights were scattered but not infrequent. There was Farrar’s opening solo salvo of “Greenwich Time” and the Uncle Tupelo tune “Punch Drunk”, which — stripped of its wall-of-sludge guitars — came off more poignant than pointed. There was Winkle’s melancholy e-bow guitar solo in “No Rolling Back”, Butler’s eerie steel in “Cahokian”, Dave Bryson’s insistent syncopation in “Hanging On To You”, DeBorja’s swirling organ in “Barstow”. And there was an especially rocking version of “Heart On The Ground”, during which Canyon suddenly made like Farrar’s own personal Crazy Horse.
But the show never really found its stride until late, when “Feedkill Chain”, “Voodoo Candle” and “Clear Day Thunder” closed the set on a run of impassioned, meaty rock that recalled Son Volt’s hungry early days. Farrar’s solo acoustic encore included a chugging blues take on “Driving The View” and warm, familiar versions of “Tear-Stained Eye” and “Windfall”. Then Canyon returned for the full-band free-for-all on “Like A Hurricane”.
Canyon opened the evening with a set that evoked a sleepier, more stately My Morning Jacket or a slightly seedy Cowboy Junkies. Butler, the band’s frontman, is an earnest and passionate singer (if his vocals are somewhat pinched), and many of his songs — especially “Rio Grande Rail” (a waltz about a southbound train) and “Lights Of Town” (yet another dusky reminiscence of the old home) — could’ve come from a box labeled Instant Alt-Country. But the amber glow of Winkle’s distorted slide guitar and DeBorja’s organ and accordion gave even the more pedestrian material a seductive, autumnal air.