Son Volt / Alvin Youngblood Hart – Variety Playhouse (Atlanta, GA)
Saturday night in Little Five Points, Atlanta’s increasingly gentrified in-town epicenter of hip, has evolved into some kind of a nightmare scene for anyone old enough to have lived through the neighborhood’s scabrous but considerably more affable past. This evening was no exception, as thunderstorms soaked the streets and pre-Super Bowl hordes from the suburbs jostled for parking spots and jammed bars and restaurants up and down Euclid Avenue.
Inside the Variety Playhouse, the crowd for Son Volt’s sold-out show proved equally vexing. Guinness-in-the-bottle-swilling, Abercrombie & Fitch-wearing, Dirty Bird-doing young people formed immovable human waves, clogging the beer lines and restrooms.
Onstage, new-school country blues singer Alvin Youngblood Hart attempted to instruct the noisy, milling throng on a few high points of African-American musical history, citing his 90-year-old mentor Henry Townsend as every bit as important as Robert Johnson and eulogizing the recently departed Charles Brown. He also recalled his salad days on Chicago’s venerable Maxwell Street, “before they cleaned it up and sanitized it.” No one seemed to know what the hell he was talking about. But someone shouted out: “Play the blues.” And Hart obliged with a scowl and an aggravated bit of slide guitar.
By the time Son Volt took the stage around 10 p.m., there were some 1,400 folks overflowing the aisles and spilling out into the lobby. With bassist Jim Boquist, guitarist Dave Boquist and drummer Mike Heidorn behind him, leader Jay Farrar turned out a near-nonstop swirl of the songs he’s been writing and singing since the band debuted with Trace in 1995, alternating nearly equally between compositions from that album, 1997’s Straightaways and last year’s Wide Swing Tremolo.
Farrar managed to galvanize the chatty audience with an even tighter version of the exalted riffs and edgy shivers that have marked Son Volt’s live sound from the beginning. It was particularly interesting to hear how new tunes bumped up against old favorites; for instance, the bluesy chorus of “Medicine Hat” segued easily to the equally anthemic twang of “Tear Stained Eye”. Other songs, such as “Creosote”, were deconstructed to quiet glory, with Dave Boquist’s fiddle gracefully floating over the mix.
If the band sounded more assured than ever, they also sometimes appeared to be on the verge of fading away in back of their leader’s skittish demeanor. Still, when Farrar hit that haunting “One Upon A Time In The West” harmonica swell from “Jodel”, or burst forth with the tangled refrain of “Drown”, it was clear whose shambling soul held the center. And when, after nearly two hours and two extended encores, they closed with a loose-limbed cover of the Delvettes’ garage-rock nugget “Last Time Around”, it seemed like everyone was finally having a good time.