Son Volt w/ Colonel Ford @ Turner Hall Ballroom
June 5, 2013
the first song on Son Volt’s 1995 debut Trace,
has a great line about scanning the AM dial, “searching for a truer sound.”
“Catching an all-night station in Louisiana,” sings Jay Farrar, “it sounds like
1963, but for now it sounds like heaven.” Throughout his career, Farrar has
strived for that true, indescribable American sound, and has perhaps found it
with new album Honky-Tonk, a fiddle
and pedal steel-laden country record that Farrar says looks back to “Windfall” for
its sonic inspiration.
Unfortunately, Son Volt’s Honky-Tonk–heavy set felt less than true Wednesday night at the Turner Hall Ballroom, where the songs sounded fine but lacked the spiritual impact that perhaps only an all-night Louisiana AM station can provide. The band was joined by fellow St. Louisians Colonel Ford, who turned Turner Hall into the world’s biggest honky-tonk with a set of classic country, Johnny Cash covers and bluegrass standards to open the show. The two virtuous guitarists won admiring applause for their politely blistering solos, but the band was not overly intrusive. It got the night off to a nice, easy start, just barely louder than the din of the room, now half-filled with people mostly seated at tables. When Colonel Ford’s lead guitarist Gary Hunt said, “the better band is backstage right now, warming up,” I thought he was being modest. Actually, he was joking, because there was no other band: With the addition of Jay Farrar, Colonel Ford simply became Son Volt.
And not surprisingly, that change made a big difference. All week as I prepared for the show, I struggled to find anything interesting about Son Volt, and they didn’t do much to change my mind as they got underway with a string of mopey alt-country songs that sounded too mediocre to have been plucked from real American air. To hear Son Volt, say, drifting from a jukebox in some dive while the bartender slides you a Pabst would be something kin to the “all-night station in Louisiana” from “Windfall”—the true sound: spontaneous, personal, a little bit magic. But to stand and watch it unfold under the lackluster guidance of Farrar and his band was just disappointing. With his face mostly hidden behind a swoosh of brown hair, Farrar moved through the set with an attitude that bordered on impatience, barely allowing time for applause between songs and doing very little to acknowledge the audience. The best moments came from stage right, where guitarist/fiddler Hunt—who looks so natural with a Telecaster on his hip that it’s hard to imagine him doing anything else—unwound with graceful, pinpoint precision.
That said, good things started to happen when Farrar switched out his acoustic guitar for an electric, starting with the drawn-out, experimental “Medication,” which shook something loose for the band. A string of lively rockers followed, including the cowbell-riddled “Drown” from Trace, which got the band into it and the audience moving. By the end of the set, Son Volt had built up a considerable mojo. They returned for an encore that included two from Trace, “Tear Stained Eye” and the crowd favorite “Windfall,” before closing with a cover of the classic “Stop The World And Let Me Off.”
When it comes to the “true sound,” I guess you know it when you hear it. I didn’t hear it Wednesday night, but what started off as a pretty unremarkable hit a high note when it mattered most: at the end.