I’m going to begin this review with a digression, but trust me: it’s going to make sense. Every time I go to my favorite record store in DC, Joint Custody, I’m reminded of how many amazing albums you can get at incredible prices. If you look past the biggest, brightest names, the most highly-sought ought bands and artists, you can find all-time great records in the range of $5-$10. Getting The Kink Kronikles for 10 bucks feels like some sort of cosmic victory in the face of all unjust bullshit this life has heaped upon me.
The same thing that’s true about records is true about concerts. Look beyond what’s most popular, especially what’s most popular right now, and you can find some amazing experiences. Road-tested bands with deep songbooks who know how to connect with a crowd consistently, every night. You’ll get to feel — to actually be — close to the band. No, you’re not going to get a pyrotechnics display or a laser light show. What you are going to get is incredible music, played by incredibly talented, deeply committed artists, who have given their lives to it.
Son Volt has been one of those bands since 1994. Founded by singer/songwriter and guitarist Jay Farrar after the dissolution of alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo, they quickly made a mark in the rock and Americana genres with their stunning debut, 1995’s Trace. While that album and subsequent releases received critical acclaim, popular success was limited, and they went on hiatus in the 2000. After a number of years, Farrar revived the band, and their work since has been just as strong. They released their latest album, the excellent Electro Melodier, last year. Son Volt toured that album with an excellent show at The Birchmere on March 2.
Son Volt gives you no-frills Midwestern rock ‘n’ roll with a twang. Frontman Jay Farrar is known as a man of few words, his nephew Jesse said more during his opening set. He’s not without wit, though. When someone in the audience called for “Windfall,” he replied, without missing a beat, “We’ll get there.” He wasn’t lying. They did get there, covering road classic “Windfall,” as well as “Drown” and “Tear-Stained Eye” (my personal favorite, an account of a flood in St. Genevieve, Missouri) from that debut album.
At The Birchmere on March 2, the top half of the set included the first our tracks from Electro Melodier: “The Globe,” which opened the set, “Arkey Blue,” “Diamonds and Cigarettes,” and “Reverie.” “The Globe” was followed by “The 99,” a reference to the 99% — the song is about income inequality. Other songs from the first half of the set included “Back Against the Wall,” (which goes to similar territory as Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” without being a similar song), “While The World Waits,” “Sinking Down,” “Picking Up The Pieces, and “Hearts and Minds.”
Watch the official music video for “Hearts and Minds” by Son Volt on YouTube:
After “Reverie,” the band reached into their songbook to deliver a smattering of fan favorites. I’ve already mentioned the three big ones from Trace; they also performed “Bandages & Scars,” an ode to Woody Guthrie; “Afterglow 61,” an homage to Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61,” “Driving the Route,” and “Medicine Hat.” For their encore, they did “Cherokee Street,” followed by the only cover of the evening, NRBQ’s “I Want You Bad.”
The final song of the night, “Chickamauga,” was recorded on Uncle Tupelo’s final album, Anodyne. It’s speculated, though not confirmed, that Jay wrote it after reading the Ambrose Bierce ghost story about the aftermath of the Civil War battle (which I strongly recommend). Sometimes, as an artist, it’s more fun to let the art speak for itself and see what people make of it. (Though it can also be a lot of fun to reveal the intricate machinations you have designed and watch people quiver before you in awe. I guess I’m saying both having their appeal.)
Son Volt are road warriors, almost certainly coming to a town near you. They play great music, the real shit, songs with substance that rock hard. Go see them. There may not be a lot of sizzle, but there’s plenty of steak, and you’ll go home feeling well-fed.
Here are some photos of Son Volt performing at The Birchmere on March 2, 2022. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.