Jay Farrar's voice is like a rock in the middle of the mighty Mississippi River, which separates his hometown of Belleville, Illinois, and his current residence of St. Louis. The Son Volt frontman's almost-monotone delivery sits firmly in the middle of the songs. Everything else swirls around it, whether the instruments rock hard or are quiet as a whisper. The band played the High Noon Saloon Thursday night.
These vocals sometimes cause trouble on Son Volt's albums. If the effort is a muted affair, such as 1997's Straightaways or the recently released Honky Tonk, the songs tend to blur together halfway through. The best Son Volt records mix things up a bit, making each song a bit more distinct and memorable. The band's debut album, Trace, is still as stunning as it was when released in 1995, and 1998's Wide Swing Tremolo, the last album featuring Son Volt's original lineup, has only gotten better with age. Okemah and the Melody of Riot provided a breath of fresh air in 2005, after the band's six-year hiatus, during which Farrar released two low-key solo albums.
But in concert, there's an energy that carries the stubbornness of Farrar's vocals through the evening, bringing out nuance and power that often doesn't translate while you're listening to Son Volt at home. This was definitely the case during the band's performance on Thursday. Although the set was mostly focused on songs from recent, acoustic-oriented albums, there never really seemed to be a lull. Farrar and the band plowed through song after song, and the crowd was engaged the entire way. Early standouts included Honky Tonk's "Down the Highway" and "Dynamite" from 2009's American Central Dust, which is one of Farrar's most melodic and beautiful songs. The evening picked up considerably when Farrar strapped on his electric guitar for rockers like "Voodoo Candle," "Bandages and Scars," "Drown," and "Afterglow 61."
The current line-up of Son Volt is the strongest Farrar has ever had. Much of that credit goes to steel player and keyboardist Marc Spencer, who also appears on Farrar's solo records. But the newest member of the band, fiddler and guitarist Gary Hunt, also deserves special mention. Hunt is the heart and soul of Colonel Ford, the opener for the evening, whose lineup for this tour is basically Son Volt without Farrar. Colonel Ford set the stage early with Spencer and Hunt's dueling country pickin' on classics like "Whiskey River" and "White Lightning." During Son Volt's set, Hunt's hot licks brought a more down-home sensibility to classics like "Tear-Stained Eye" and "Windfall," which were performed in the encores.
A great band takes its songwriting to another level. Farrar and his new bandmates did just that by turning the High Noon into a rockin' honky-tonk one might find near the banks of the Mississippi River.