Son Volt – Mississippi Nights (St. Louis, MO)
The last seconds of the last song of the first of the last two shows for a long time: the singer and writer turned toward his Vox amp and ground away at his strings, holding the notes, though the drummer had tossed up his sticks and the bass player was setting down his instrument, and he kept holding and shaking the notes as the bass player walked past him, toward the door. In the queer, final convulsions of this song, “Last Time Around”, (a garage-rock classic by the Del-Vetts), he stepped back towards the audience, his face placid, and he turned to his mike and softly said, “Thanks a lot. It’s been real fine,” or maybe, “It’s been a good time.” It wasn’t quite clear.
Many readers know that, five years ago, Uncle Tupelo performed their last two shows here at this club on the Mississippi River. Plenty of St. Louisans hate the place — the neighborhood, known as The Landing, is overrun with deafening Margaritaville bars, the staff can be as accommodating as gendarmes, the mix can be a slush of bass, and sold-out shows quickly become a soul-stifling crush. On the other hand, there are indelible memories of shows at Mississippi Nights by Richard Thompson and Tricky; pandemonious, stage-rushing shows by the Bottle Rockets; and of course the painful joy of those final Tupelo dates.
In the absence of official declarations, rumor and conjecture lurked about, and anyone who follows such things was convinced they would likely never see this band again. Long time manager Sharon Marsh flew in from North Carolina; their publicist at Warner Bros. in Los Angeles had originally planned to attend as well. “The band doesn’t want everyone to think of these as their last shows,” Marsh said. But a friend spoke for the mood that Thursday night: “It may just be a trial separation, but before you know it, someone heads to Florida.”
Beginning with “Question”, Thursday night’s set held to the songs the band has played for the last year and half. As on Friday, Son Volt presented the whole of Wide Swing Tremolo (omitting only the instrumentals and the rarely performed “Streets That Time Walks” and “Carry You Down”), supplemented by five staples from Straightaways, four from Trace, and the only two Uncle Tupelo songs Farrar regularly selects these days: “Postcard” and “Chickamauga”. No summations, few surprises, and whether it was the small turnout (easily the poorest take for any of the band’s appearances at Mississippi Nights) or the muted dispiritedness lingering in the air, the music couldn’t catch fire.
Heidorn tried to push the band: He leapt to his feet before cracking down on his snare, threw himself forward as if to somersault over his kit. No good. Eventually his ebullience surrendered to the detachment that neither Farrar nor the Boquists knew how to fight. When Dave Boquist missed the intro string bend to “Flow”, the band froze and regrouped. Rather than lightening the mood, the miss just deepened the unease.
And then Friday night: The opening pace was unprecedentedly scorching. The previous night, “Driving The View” had closed the main set, only it felt burdensome, as though the band had to lurch against a headwind, finding no way to send the song forward into liberated vistas. Friday night, it was chosen as opener, and as the song came to life again, Jay and Jim savored the harmonies, and Heidorn pounded ecstatically, almost festively, his face and body language filled with the joy of a hundred hungry young rockers.
“Driving The View” snapped into “Flow”, into “Caryatid Easy”, into “Right On Through”, Heidorn smacking a drum stick to splinters, into “Blind Hope”, all with barely enough breaks to tune or switch guitars, the songs unfurling in their inexhaustible intensity, images echoing and rebounding off each other in a feverish pageant. Midway through the night, Farrar acknowledged the death of Doug Sahm the day before by dedicating “Tear Stained Eye” to “Sir Doug,” singing with touching involvement in the moment, then sliding into the solo acoustic intro of “Medicine Hat”. Before the set closed on the vicious howlings of “Route”, Farrar nodded to the soundman to ready the vocal fuzz, and again without pausing hurled himself into “Straightface”, grabbing a harmonica taped to his mike stand, blowing like a man screaming against a storm.
Friday night’s three encores included “Ten Second News”, “Postcard”, “Chickamauga”, “Loose String” and “Last Time Around”, all violent and instinctive, as well as the only recent addition to the set: “Making Time”, a mid-’60s hit for Brit invaders Creation (and recently heard on the Rushmore soundtrack). The refrain — “Why do we have to carry on, always singing the same old song?” — sounded cruel, and the mad, piledriving rhythms shook the bones.
Then, one last song, “Windfall”, rearranged in waltz time, the melody elongated and refracted and saddened, yet refreshed at the same time, still hopeful, still as sure a sign of the soulful, decisive experience this band always wanted and, as happened this night, frequently attained.