Mound City Music Festival – Mississippi Nights (St. Louis, MO)
Call it a benefit, call it a homecoming party, call it a risk. For Jay Farrar and the reformed, retooled Son Volt, a one-night festival at Mississippi Nights — an 800-capacity club on the Mississippi River in downtown St. Louis, the venue where Uncle Tupelo said so long so many years ago — sheltered a near-capacity crowd and a generosity of spirit, unpretentiously extended to ailing musicians Karl Mueller and Alejandro Escovedo as well as Habitat for Humanity.
Opener Anders Parker, backed by only bass and drums, delivered a churning but surprisingly melodic set featuring a half-dozen compressed drone jams and a rhythm section that found just the right touch in the groove to balance the severity of his songs. He concentrated on new material from Tell It To The Dust, his warmest, most invitingly pop-inflected record.
Richard Buckner fared less well. With acoustic guitar in lap, eyes half-closed in brooding ambivalence, he stared at his arsenal of pedals as though they alone understood his ambivalence. Though dedicated fans stood intensely at the front of the stage, the room never quieted, and he fought the sketchy sound and the partygoers for a set that lasted little more than twenty minutes. He blurred his songs, focusing on material from Impasse and Since, and though his intensity never failed, it rarely connected with the audience.
The Bottle Rockets played as a trio — bassist Robert Kearns couldn’t make the trip from Austin — and made the most of their 35-minute set, emphasizing acoustic numbers. New member John Horton switched between guitar and bass, while Brian Henneman — whose Atkins obsession has given him an almost impish quality — and drummer Mark Ortmann found a groove that only longtime friends know. The Mississippi Nights stage has long been a home to the band, and though they never attained the ragged electric wonder of past sets, they rarely have sounded as comfortable with their material. They turned in one of their best readings of “Kerosene”; had Farrar only joined them for the harmonies he contributed on record, the version would have been definitive.
The new Son Volt features guitarist Brad Rice (whose credits include the Backsliders, Ryan Adams and Tift Merritt), bassist Andrew Duplantis (Jon Dee Graham, Alejandro Escovedo, Bob Mould) and drummer Dave Bryson (of Farrar’s recent backing band Canyon). Concentrating on new material, they somehow merged the open-ended feel of Farrar’s sets with Canyon and the taut but rolling roar of vintage Son Volt.
Without the signature harmonies of Dave Boquist, Farrar emphasized the harmonic overtones of his and Rice’s guitars, alternating lead licks and letting the band find its own identity onstage. Farrar looked and sounded at home, as though the music was less a private act and more an exchange between himself and his audience.
The new songs sounded like the strongest numbers from Staightaways or Wide Swing Tremolo, but with a more freely flowing energy — Bryson and Duplantis connecting with a remarkably steady, natural feel for the tricky changes Farrar has been composing — that ultimately dispelled comparisons to the original Son Volt.
The evening ended with a long, loud, guitar-army jam, including Horton and Henneman, Buckner and Parker, finding the eye of “Like A Hurricane” and pushing out into the genuinely electrifying wide open space beyond it. A benefit concert, true — the event raised $14,000 — but the principal benefactor was the spontaneous, unpolished spirit of rock ‘n’ roll.