New guitarist in tow, Farrar sounds in fine form
Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro, NC
September 13, 2009
Last night marked the eleventh or twelfth time I’ve gone to see Jay Farrar live. Long one of my favorite artists, I’ve been a paying customer, traveling the Southeast to see various forms of Farrar’s solo acts and Son Volt lineups. Being the relentless, old-school road warrior that he is, each tour has brought him to my neck of the woods. Farrar’s vocal delivery and brilliant lyrical tales of drift, depression, and the unending pursuit of identity have always resonated with me and ensured that I would buy a ticket. However, as good as he is, I often left the venue feeling as though I had seen that show before and wishing that some more grit and fire would have been added to the proceedings.
Such was my mindset last night as Jay Farrar and his bandmates ambled onstage a little past 10pm. A minor surprise stood stage left as James Walbourne had replaced Chris Masterson on lead guitar. Masterson had been a fine guitarist for the band, ably and creatively flourishing in Son Volt version 2.0 for the past three years. The band’s online blog made no mention of why Masterson is out, instead focusing on the return of Walbourne, who has previously logged time on earlier tours with Farrar and multi-instrumentalist Mark Spencer, and most recently played lead guitar in The Pretenders. Walbourne proved his chops early and often in the show, firing off fierce solos that rattled the bones of songs like “Medication”, “Down to the Wire”, and “Tear Stained Eye”. Spencer added graceful pedal steel throughout the show as well, particularly on new American Central Dust tracks “Cocaine and Ashes” “Strength and Doubt”, and “Jukebox of Steel”, which were all given a bonus extra punch in the live setting. Rounding out the five-piece was the stellar rhythm section of bassist Andrew Duplantis and drummer Dave Bryson, who pounded away at the backbeat of each song’s foundation.
Farrar, for his part, seemed renewed by the addition of Walbourne. The two repeatedly squared off and alternated solos, with Farrar nodding approval at the sounds emanating from the stage. And for a man who rarely if ever interacts with the crowd, we were treated with an early and enthusiastic “How the hell are you Chapel Hill?” Whether this was a one-night high point or a sign of things to come for the remaining weeks of the tour remains to be seen. But, for Son Volt fans, last night was a positive glimpse into a focused and hungry band, one that was in danger of getting bogged down by a distant and studio-sounding live show. Jay Farrar’s songs have never suffered for lyrical grace and insight; it’s the presentation that sometimes lacked vigor. James Walbourne added a much needed dose of rock and roll swagger to Farrar’s meditations of the American Dream.