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Jay Farrar Doesn’t Give a $h!t What I Want

Posted by sdrury on December 12, 2009

In the rather insular world of independent music the break-up of Uncle Tupelo in 1994 was biblical in its importance. Few musical divorces were so public and filled with acrimony. The real tragedy of course, was musical, because the leaders of Uncle Tupelo, Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy went their separate ways with Tweedy forming Wilco and Farrar forming Son Volt.

I’m embarrassed to say I learned about this piece of history well after the fact, as a fan of Wilco. As all the members of Uncle Tupelo—except for Farrar and drummer Mike Heidorn—ended up in the original lineup of Wilco, the dramatic back story of the band’s formation accompanied every early write-up of them. So, everything I knew about the so-called fathers of alternative country was through the prism of one of the aggrieved parties. And as everyone knows, story of every relationship has two sides—at the very least.

Since purchasing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in 2002 my admiration and respect for Tweedy and Wilco has only grown. I’ve seen them in concert numerous and I can identify their songs in an instant, even those from side projects. Tweedy has made little secret of his wish to achieve mainstream success with Wilco, and the evolution of their music reflects that aim. They’ve won two Grammys and are among the top-selling independent bands in the country (Foxtrot has sold nearly 700,000 copies).

And up until recently, when it came to choosing between Wilco and Son Volt I felt like a child caught in the middle of a custody battle. Despite all they had in common they were mutually exclusive. Liking one band meant loathing the other.

So, when I took in The Son Volt show a few weeks back at The Handlebar  in my new hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, I felt like a party-crasher. I half-expected a loyalty test before being admitted—“Quick, what are the first five tracks from Okemah and the Melody of Riot?” I undoubtedly would have failed any such questioning since my knowledge of Son Volt’s records is slim, especially in comparison to…another band…whose name rhymes with Bilko (I have since remedied this imbalance.)

Now, I can’t help but believe that the mere mention of Uncle Tupelo or Jeff Tweedy in the context of a Son Volt discussion has become immensely tiring and more than a little irritating to Jay Farrar at this point. I’ve heard interviews where the operatics from days gone by is brought up to Farrar in a very casual way, where the interviewer is giving the listener a frame of reference and Farrar’s answers, after a deep sigh or two, are perfunctory at best and occasionally caustic. He could easily say, “Really? We still are talking about this?” Then again, it’s quite possible he’s just annoyed about having to deal with the music press.

And that’s the thing about Farrar. It’s a tired cliché to say a musician is all about the music, but with Jay Farrar it really is true. He apparently doesn’t have much interest in playing stadiums or winning a Grammy. Or having his music used to sell cars. Son Volt’s sound is extremely uncompromising and it’s very much a progression of what Farrar began with Uncle Tupelo, the fusion of twang, punk and classic rock that was famously dubbed Alt-Country.

The first half of Son Volt’s set was dedicated to the twangy portion of their catalogue. Farrar played an acoustic guitar that was seconded most prominently by a steel guitar and bass. The drummer and lead guitarist seemed to be apparitions. The crowd nodded approvingly and applauded politely at the end of each number. For a moment, I thought the audience might be taking the measure of Son Volt, but upon seeing them whisper along to Farrar’s pleasant baritone, I knew I was among diehards.

About five songs into the set I talked my companion into walking up close to the stage and in a matter of moments we were within a few yards of Farrar. Next to me, was a brave soul sporting a Wilco t-shirt, which, in this setting, was tantamount to wearing a Yankees jersey in Fenway Park. In between songs, I sarcastically advised him that he should not expect me to come to his aid if he found himself on the business end of someone’s boot. He laughed knowingly and said, “Ahhh, who says you can’t like both of ’em? It’s cool man…” I was relieved to hear this and it got me thinking about the last concert I attended. Such a discussion about band loyalty would be considered a triviality when the artists playing before 80,000 strangers at a football stadium invoked poverty in Africa and solidarity for Burma. But here, among several hundred fans (a review the next day said the venue was “packed” when in fact it was about two-thirds full) in a converted warehouse, it was the music that mattered. Farrar slipped from one song to the next with such fluidity that it was hard to tell where one song ended and the next one began. The mood was casual and comforting, even though, Farrar might have spoken ten sentences to the attendees, and that’s a generous estimation.

And it was at that point, with the room filled with knowing fellowship, that somebody opened a door and let the rock and roll in. If earlier Farrar was aloof or disinterested, when the opening chords to Afterglow 61 rippled from his guitar his expression turned to a gleeful sneer,

Goodnight Irene inside the prison walls, Killed a man and lived to sing about it all, Stella 12 on Highway 61..” (here’s an earlier rendition on Letterman)

For the next 45 minutes Son Volt pumped through one pulsating song after another, songs that often invoked Farrar’s musical ancestors, the type of songs that, not too long ago could be heard on AOR radio, but now seemed precious and vital, made that way because the guy at the microphone, leading this blistering rock band, pouring this music over an appreciative throng, was doing exactly what he wanted in the way he wanted to do it. And in this day and age, where what we used to call the music business is whimpering into decline because of market pressures, there’s something reassuring about a guy who bows to no one.

Of course I hoped I would hear No Depression, Uncle Tupelo’s signature song, but I didn’t. It left me wanting more, but Jay Farrar probably doesn’t give a shit what I want.

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