Son Volt – First Avenue (Minneapolis, MN)
A year and a week ago, Son Volt were in this same building, just on the other side of the wall, on the cramped stage of the 7th Street Entry (a smaller club inside First Avenue). They were only a few feet away from an eager, attentive crowd, tuning up, taping down guitar effects and set lists, looking slightly anxious. A year and a week ago, Son Volt were making their debut. And now, on another steamy Midwestern evening, in front of another packed house — this time on a much larger scale, in the far more spacious main room of First Avenue — it’s worth looking back on Son Volt’s first year, and to reflect on what it has brought them.
So what has it brought them, exactly? Well, among other things, a flurry of record reviews ranging from enthusiastic to drooling, a rash of articles claiming Son Volt (and/or Wilco) to be the Next Big Thing, a perceived position at the forefront of a genre they had no intention of creating, and even, inevitably, a backlash that proclaims them hopelessly sentimental and revisionist. This attention has been somewhat disproportionate: For all the buzz and fuss, Trace has sold modestly — better than any Uncle Tupelo record, but nowhere near as well as you might think based on this teeming crowd tonight.
Still, if the year hasn’t quite brought universal fame and fortune, it’s brought them an assurance and strength as a band that were just barely visible at those first shows. There’s no longer anything rookie or tentative about them: They complement each other precisely, and they’ve become tight enough that they’re able to be loose, able to play around with melodies and guitar parts or add new and unexpected harmonies to old songs. Hearing “Whiskey Bottle” with Jim Boquist singing harmony, for example, it’s suddenly hard to imagine it any other way.
That degree of ease is undoubtedly the product of touring for almost an entire year straight, a schedule so grueling that leader Jay Farrar had to fit his recent wedding into a week’s break between tour legs. Touring doesn’t seem to have worn them out, though; in fact, they seem energized by being onstage, and even if Farrar hasn’t started cracking jokes or stage diving, his presence is still a far cry from those gloomy last Uncle Tupelo shows.
That said, their fourth Minneapolis appearance did have a vaguely unsettling sense of deja vu about it. The set list has barely changed in this first year. On this night, they played only one new song (admittedly a great one, “Cemetery Savior”) — and even it isn’t that new anymore, having been debuted here back in December. The rest of the set is basically the same mix of Trace tunes and Tupelo greats that they played their first time out.
The selection of covers has been varied, and the choices have been impeccable. “She’s More to Be Pitied”, Danny Whitten’s “Downtown” — a song this band was born to cover — and a surprising and very rocking rendition of Cheap Trick’s “Downed” are tonight’s choices. But for the most part, it’s the same set they’ve been playing for the last year and a week.
This isn’t really cause for concern yet; it’s still a great set, after all, and it does keep getting tighter and more confident. But more than a few people in the room looked as though they wouldn’t mind hearing something new. It’s likely, of course, that Son Volt will bring something new on their next visit, and that it will be as compelling as their first year’s worth of work. What’s less clear is whether their next year of existence will be as filled with mass-scale attention as their first year has been. Already their moment as potential Next Big Thing could slip past as the media hunts around for the next hot new genre; already one segment of the crowd tonight seems politely bored.
Not that any of this matters to Son Volt, though. You can lay odds that a year from now they’ll be back, sounding glorious, whether they’ve moved on to an even bigger venue or are no longer packing the club to the rafters. It’s been a great first year. Here’s to the next one.