What you heard initially last night at Headliners Music Hall in Louisville was the Son Volt sound of old – specifically, a muddy, mid-tempo groove colored by the grey wail of Jay Farrar’s singing, Rhodes-style keyboards and a sullen wash of guitar. It all merged to form the show-opening Down to the Wire, a relatively recent tune – one of four, in fact, pulled from 2009’s American Central Dust album. But it could have easily passed for the kind of cloudy but fascinating Americana variations conjured during the band’s mid ‘90s formation.
But the Son Volt that closed out its current tour last night had a lot more to say and plenty to say it with. The current quintet version of the band revisited the more defined country preferences that Farrar explored during the final days of his previous band, the revered Uncle Tupelo. But that was simply part of a greater glance back to more traditional roots that were fleshed out in the five songs performed off of Son Volt’s newest album, the aptly titled Honky Tonk.
In bringing that music to life Farrar had two very industrious co-horts. One was Mark Spencer, a longtime ally since the disintegration of the original Son Volt at the close of the ‘90s. He spent the duration of the 90 minute show shifting between a portable keyboard that gave a huge, churchy boost to The Picture (replacing the horn arrangement from the original 2007 studio version) and pedal steel guitar, where he summoned wide, pining electric embellishment to such traditionally rooted Honky Tonk fare as Bakersfield.
The other co-pilot was Gary Hunt, a guitarist capable of immaculate country picking who also juggled duties on fiddle. But his highlight reel moment came during a heavily revamped Barstow, a murky tune from Farrar’s 2001 solo album Sebastopol. With Hunt on mandolin, the song shed its forelorn frame to approximate a rustic waltz.
Farrar, as usual, was a man of few words. No matter. His moodpiece material spoke volumes, whether it was through the warm country glow of Honky Tonk’s Wild Side, the infectious melodic sweep he used to propel the Woody Guthrie lyrics of Hoping Machine or the still-commanding crunch of Drown, one of only three tunes performed from Son Volt’s early years.
The time tripping was more concisely defined by the show final three songs, all performed as encores. The first harkened back to Son Volt’s beginnings (the ever-hopeful country ode Windfall). The second shot to the heart of the country tradition Farrar has renewed his infatuation with (a cover of Merle Haggard’s Stop the World and Let Me Off that owed as much to the Beatles as it did Bakersfield). The finale offered a sample of the alt-country blueprints formulated by Uncle Tupelo 20 years ago by way of a still-celebratory Chickamauga.
If the evening’s show-opening set by Colonel Ford seemed to encroach on the more traditionally minded aspects of Son Volt’s renewed country vision, it did so purposely. The band was actually Son Volt minus Farrar performing a pokerfaced array of vintage country hits that included Another Day Another Dollar, The Old Home Place and Whiskey River with Hunt, Spencer and bassist Andrew Duplantis trading off vocal duties. Even Farrar briefly joined the fun, playing pedal steel on If You Ain’t Lovin (You Ain’t Livin’) without fanfare or recognition – a setting he no doubt felt very much at home in.