Son Volt – The Brewery (Louisville, KY)
Eager to escape the pelting rain that had swamped south-central Indiana and Kentucky all day, we entered the wrong door. “You’ve got tickets for Son Volt? You want to go in the other door, to the Thunderdome,” the bouncer said, and soon enough, we settled into the neon-barn section of the Brewery, a full-bore nightlife complex with high ceilings, pink neon and lycra-clad blondes presiding over tubs of beer.
“Thunderdome” seemed an ill-fitting name for a venue that would lure Son Volt, and there was a gang of slurry thugs who shouted for “Whiskey Bottle” between every song (plus one person who inexplicably called for “Pecan Pie”).
Luckily, Jay Farrar seemed oblivious. The frontman’s eyes were clamped shut for virtually the entire 22-song performance, indicating the deep inner churning that renders Son Volt’s vibe of physical motion so distinct, and makes Farrar’s trademark voice so pure and blue. The well-oiled combo behind him (bassist/backing vocalist Jim Boquist, utility ace Dave Boquist, drummer Mike Heidorn and pedal steel player Eric Heywood) is as music-first as it gets, playing with a sure-handed dedication to fills and textures that feels like a tribute to the instruments, much like those moody snapshots of guitars and microphones that often have adorned Farrar’s albums.
The early-evening set began with thick, chugging renditions of three tracks from Trace — “Catching On”, “Live Free” and “Loose String” — before finally dipping into the new Straightaways with “Cemetery Savior”, a sweetly swinging rocker that features a bracing, feedback-laced solo from Heywood on the rideout.
From there, Son Volt dug in their heels for a long stretch of acoustic numbers, beginning with surprise readings of Uncle Tupelo’s “True To Life” and the hymn-like “Slate”, graced by the rust and jig of Dave Boquist’s fiddle. “Slate” segued almost directly into the loping new “Creosote”, a song so fully realized it sounds like a classic the first time you hear its crystalline steel guitar spine.
This downbeat portion continued with album-faithful versions of the older “Out Of The Picture” and “Tear-Stained Eye” (which drew one of the loudest cheers of the evening), and the painful Straightaways ballad “Left A Slide”. The weary-west atmospherics of “Last Minute Shakedown” perked up at the end when Farrar’s acoustic strumming meshed with Dave Boquist’s clear electric and Heywood’s steel in a groove so lovely that several couples began to twirl on the packed floor. But the most powerful impression of the acoustic run was made when Dave Boquist picked up a lap steel to infuse a spare rendering of “Ten Second News” with a roadside howl that nearly buckled the floorboards before landing square in your gut.
A perfunctory version of the new single “Back Into Your World” got the foursome rocking again, and the normally-still Farrar began to reel gently as he belted “Picking Up The Signal” and “Caryatid Easy” from Straightaways, thumpers both. “Route” closed out the main set at ear-ringing volume, with Farrar laying back ever so slightly between verse and chorus to downshift the band into a dinosaur Crazy Horse groove.
The acoustics came back out for a twangy new arrangement of “Drown” to open the first encore, followed by Farrar’s prettiest melody yet, the banjo-driven “No More Parades”, and the timeless “Windfall”, spotlight on Dave Boquist’s fiddle solo.
A long, aching ballad we’d never heard before came next. Built around the phrase “Everybody goes/as fast as they can,” the song seemed a little linear for Farrar’s current style; it could’ve been a haunting cover. A raucous “Chickamauga” galvanized the crowd and Son Volt exited again. Someone perceptive opened an enormous door at the rear of the club to remedy the sweltering throng with the storm’s continuing spray, and after revived hooting and stomping from all involved, Son Volt returned for another encore.
Never in a million years did we expect the old stutter-crunch of “Postcard” from Uncle Tupelo’s Still Feel Gone album. Farrar stretched his rich phrasing to accommodate his 1991 vocalizing, swiping his guitar neck along the mike stand with relish. White noise hung in the air as Farrar and band gave a gracious wave and disappeared, a little further down the road.