Stone, Steel & Bright Lights
Jay Farrar has always seemed like an unlikely candidate for a live album. It isn’t that his musicianship or his talent as a songwriter are in question, both of these made him an alt-country icon through his work with Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt. It’s just that Farrar has never been a particularly dynamic personality and that becomes readily apparent in the live setting. Those in the know have learned to parse every mumbled “thanks” to gage Farrar’s mood on any given night.
Nevertheless, a wealth of live Farrar material has become available in recent months, mostly thanks to the fact that Farrar owns his own record label and can release virtually anything he wants. This live album is available in stores (a different show is available as an online download) and concentrates mostly on Farrar’s two solo efforts, 2001’s Sebastapol and 2003’s Terroir Blues with nary a look back to his alt-country past.
Farrar’s solo efforts have become increasingly mannered, arty affairs with too many mumbly, similarly-melodied tracks desperately in search of a hook with too many enigmatic, obtuse lyrical constructs. So it’s fortunate that Farrar isn’t going it completely alone here. The Washington, DC-based five-piece band Canyon backs him on most tracks.
The band helps make the songs a little less fussy, a little more natural sounding. Tracks like Sebastapol‘s “Damn Shame,” “Voodoo Candle” and “Feed Kill Chain” sound supremely confident. And the rock monster “Clear Day Thunder” is a revelation, proving it owes much more to his Uncle Tupelo past than we ever realized. Terroir Blues tracks like “Cahokian” benefit from Derrick DeBorja’s piano, which opens up Farrar’s often insular sound. Spooky slide guitar and lap steel help set the mood on tunes like “All of Your Might.”
But many of Farrar’s solo tunes still have their problems. Despite a moody atmosphere and an interesting chorus, “Vitamins” suffers from too many monotonic verses. And in seeking to avoid melodic cliché on tunes like “No Rolling Back,” Farrar shoots himself in the foot by wandering aimlessly. I’ve always thought there was a kernel of greatness in “California,” but here again the melody on the verses seems too unfinished, too searching and meandering. On this version, accordion and xylophone round out the tune.
Fortunately, a couple new songs show Farrar sounding more engaged than he’s been in a long time. On the opening “Doesn’t Have to Be This Way,” he laments a “new world of shame.” And the acoustic “6 String Belief” may be one of his stronger songs since the first Son Volt album, still arguably his career apex. “Corruption in the system/a grass roots insurrection,” he sings.
The real highlights of this live disc are the two set closing covers. Syd Barrett’s “Lucifer Sam” is tight and effectively creepy, while Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane” is blistering and incendiary. Farrar and Canyon are clearly having the most fun here. Here’s hoping he can bring some of that sense of fun to his future studio efforts.