with Brian Hennepin
Luther’s Blues, Madison, WI • November 30, 2001
It’s a typical Madison roots-lovin’ Friday night crowd: lots of little glasses, lots of college-educated clothing, just as many people under 40 as over. The vibe is heavy with anticipation. Many of these folks have been Jay Farrar groupies since the first Uncle Tupelo album, followed him through three Son Volt records, and are deeply feeling Sebastapol, the new solo project. This might be THE concert of the year for a lot of people who love the alt dot country, yo.
Luther’s Blues, Mad-town’s coolest new blues joint, is packed tight, but my brother and I are lucky enough to score a table. A couple of friendly dudes originally from South Dakota sit with us; they are huge Son Volt fans, and saw Farrar when he swung through here in April. Upon further quizzing by them, I have to admit that I haven’t been the hugest follower of the No Depression thing — they seem a little flummoxed, but they recover in time to give the opening act, Brian Henneman of The Bottle Rockets, a big hand.
Henneman is a big man in a big straw hat wailing away on a big guitar and singing small songs in a big voice. I’m catching a large “New Hank Williams Senior” vibe after the first couple of songs, especially “Hey Moon,” which dates back to The Bottle Rockets’ first album. But after a while, his songs’ casual sexism really start to grate on this progressively-minded crowd — no one’s really feeling the new song “Tell Me What Is Wrong,” with its tired “men do this and women do that” formulations, and “White Boy Blues” is just embarrassing. If it wasn’t for the great “1000 Dollar Car” off the Rockets’ The Brooklyn Side, he’d have lost the audience entirely. But then he’s done, and a hush descends.
Farrar came out humbly, head a little dipped, to great applause. He steps up to the microphone with an acoustic guitar and launches immediately into “Feed Kill Chain” from the new record. He is accompanied by Mark Spencer, who used to be in The Blood Oranges and is currently unaffiliated. Spencer sits in a chair, sings beautiful high harmony lines, and cranks out some serious guitar-hero squall to compliment Farrar’s delicate acoustics; when he launches into an atmospheric metal solo at the end of the song, my brother whispers to me, “He’s been listening to his Adrian Belew.”
Spencer continues his fuzzy-crunchy work as they take on “Vitamins,” the closer from Sebastapol — but it’s always clear what the real focus is: The Voice of Jay Farrar. He doesn’t emote much onstage, as anyone who’s ever seen him before knows, but it’s not an aloof arrogance; it’s more like he’s holding back with his stage antics so he can put everything into his big beautiful booming vocals. He holds everyone in the palm of his hand as he starts in on “Medicine Hat,” a Son Volt song of great tenderness that ends up sounding a little like The Marshall Tucker Band here. And after a heartfelt “How’s everybody doing?,” he actually tackles the Uncle Tupelo classic “Still Be Around,” making it sound like he just wrote it yesterday.
Jay Farrar is a musician. He doesn’t have a lot of interest in being a “stage personality”: there is no spinning around, no patter, nothing except for great versions of great songs, belted out by a guy who looks like a burly John Denver. Most of the concert is focused on the new stuff, which is fine with the audience — a hearty “Woo!” greets the beginning of every recognizable track from Sebastapol. “Damn Shame” is a lot faster than it is on record, but Farrar and Spencer manage to do a cool drop-into-the-blues thing for four bars a couple times and that actually sounds… funky. (Well, that’s what my notes say.) We don’t miss Gillian Welch’s harmony on “Barstow,” because Spencer has it covered nicely; but the real sparks fly when he pulls off a Duane Eddy impression on a less-drony version of “Make It Alright.”
Overall, Spencer is pretty much a guitar god here, turning this two-piece ensemble into a full-sounding band. Is there anything this guy can’t do? I’m hearing Thin Lizzy and Eddie Hazel on a new song that sounds like “Until We Gather,” and there’s a very folky vibe to the end of “Voodoo Candle,” which has been getting lots of play on WMMM, our adult alternative station, and is therefore one of tonight’s big hits. And when Spencer moves over to a small keyboard to accompany “Drain,” he’s slamming the keys like a demented Richard Carpenter as Farrar croons, “Slow down, but don’t drop out.” It’s quite lovely.
All in all, this is a huge showcase for the new record: they do just about every song from Sebastapol. Everything is tight and together and the crowd is rapt at the depth and beauty of Farrar’s songwriting. These really are some kick-ass songs, people; “Outside The Door” manages to channel The Band’s arcane Americana through a blues filter, and “The Direction,” with its 5/4 boogie, looms larger in a live setting than it does on record.
But the biggest crowd roar of the night probably comes as Farrar goes back to the Son Volt songbook for the last song. “Windfall,” the first song on Trace, is just huge here, and when he sings “May the wind take your troubles away,” we can feel our own troubles just melting away for a second. It’s a great ending before the encore…but Farrar and Spencer have one more trick in store for us.
They re-enter, we’re all clapping, and Farrar steps up to the microphone. “We’ll try a George Harrison song here.” No long speeches, no sappy “I remember the first time I heard George” reminiscing, just a muscular version of “Love You To,” from Revolver, an album that is just as responsible for the sound of alt.country as anything out of Nashville. Farrar is really putting his heart into this one, and Spencer recreates Harrison’s sitar line like he’s possessed by George’s newly-departed spirit. They look at each other for the first time and lock into a blistering groove that takes everyone’s breath away; it’s fire, it’s passion, it’s a musical elegy that says more about what George Harrison meant to them — and everyone present — than a million words could ever have said. We are all lucky to have witnessed this moment and been a part of it. It’s the greatest two minutes I’ve seen in concert this year.
And, after a brief blues piece with Farrar on wailing harmonica — my brother is kind of pissed off that someone who is this good on blues harp doesn’t pull it out more — they are gone, for good. We have to clear out the hall, because Buckwheat Zydeco has a 10:30 show. We exit, a little dazed, a little happier, and really wanting to hear Sebastapol again. Like, immediately. Those really are some kick-ass songs.