Son Volt – The Iron Horse (Northampton, MA) / Wilco – The Paradise (Boston, MA) / Wilco – Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel (Providence, RI) / Son Volt – The Paradise (Boston, MA)
Saw a cool band back in October — four nights in a row.
It was all a big blur. Let me see if I can remember …. There was Jeff Tweedy, Ken Coomer, John Stirratt, Max Johnston, Jay Bennett, Mike Heidorn, Dave and Jim Boquist, and Jay Farrar. Wow. I mean, I know they expanded the lineup to five for the Anodyne tour, but this is getting out of hand. Nine guys? Two drummers? What’s going on here?
An Uncle Tupelo pipe dream, that’s what. We all sat around speculating: Would it happen here, right in our own backyard? What is the reason for this logistical curveball thrown our way? Just a coincidence? I don’t know. Just dig it.
I do know one thing: This band is sweet. They sing about highways, neon lights and missing their girlfriends. They’re tighter than ever, they sound nearly perfect, and at times they threw the crowd into a roar that would have made any narcissist green with envy.
Sometimes they were fun. Smiling, moving around, making eye contact with the crowd, and speaking to us as if we were all welcome guests in their run-down but especially comfortable house on a gorgeous breezy summer night.
They weren’t afraid to show us some new songs, either. They played a song called “I’ve Got You”, with Tweedy on lead vocal and Bennett on guitar. This song has all the elements of a hit: A better hook than Mike Tyson, and a three-person chorus that knocks your socks off.
At times, the band would bow out and let Tweedy shine. He performed an acoustic “Gun” to a drop-dead silent crowd. He also rolled out another new beauty called “The Lonely One” to equally full attention and silence. It takes someone with a lot of intestinal fortitude to get up there alone have a go at it, and Tweedy shined brighter than the hottest desert sun.
Other times they were quiet and just went about their business. Polite, too. They would play a song, the crowd would react — boy, would they react — and then Farrar, calm as ever, would simply say “thanks.” “Route” and “Drown” rocked hard and super-clean, while the dark, dripping lap steel played by Dave Boquist led the way on “Ten Second News”. “Tear Stained Eye” conjured up images of neon lights and life on the road.
But far and away the best song of the set was “Chickamauga”, as an almost animated Farrar kicked it into a gear that cannot be reached on any clutch. He stepped back, nearly jumped actually, for the final two minutes of the song and just let ‘er rip. He was hunched over, hair hanging down, grimace on his face, and sweating. It was Jay and the guitar, the guitar and Jay and to him there was no else in the place.
They played the older ones, too. Particularly interesting were slightly slower versions of “The Long Cut” and “New Madrid”. “Screen Door” was a down-home thriller, and “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” was reworked into a darker, deeper form.
Also most impressive in the back catalog was “Looking For A Way Out”, done to near-perfection with the scintillating guitar playing of Dave Boquist, the almost neurotic, even humorous drumming of Heidorn and the perfect timing of Jim Boquist’s bass playing. Farrar did some reworking of his own, speeding up the tempo of “Grindstone” and positively roaring through “Fifteen Keys”, another highlight of the set.
To finish off the big show, Tweedy managed to turn the persona of the band around 180 degrees. First off, Bennett and Coomer switched instruments, as did Stirratt and Johnston. They proceded to do their best impression of the Velvet Underground, performing a Tweedy-penned song titled “Misunderstood”, in which he cops the chorus, “Take the guitar player for a ride”, from a Peter Laughner song. It lasted nearly 12 minutes and included an echo and reverb on Tweedy’s voice that almost sounded like they’d just come back from the HORDE Tour or something. It was the darkest, most neo-hippie groove I’d ever heard from this pop band. As strange as it was to see it happening, the crowd was delighted with the suprise and responded upon completion by screaming in approval.
Farrar would prove equally able with his final vocal, an absolutely stunning solo version of “Still Be Around” performed with acoustic guitar and harmonica. The crowd hung on his every word, singing right along — and I’m convinced he loved every minute of it.
Were there problems? Not really. Tweedy and company looked a little tired; they ought to after playing 160 shows in the past year. Yet he still managed to come off as just a regular guy who was more than willing and very happy to give the crowd their money’s worth.
And Farrar? Same as always. It’s extremely difficult to gauge how this guy is feeling or what he’s thinking. Is he having fun? Is he bored? Who knows? If they keep playing shows like these, I don’t care if they throw baseballs at us.
What it comes down to is that both appear to be happy with what they’re doing. Ultimately, that’s all that matters. You’ll get no comparison from me, just glowing reviews of two bands and four nights of magic. Let it rest there.