As Derby Week concert celebrations go, last night’s outing by Americana mainstay Jay Farrar at Louisville’s Clifton Center was a subdued, studious affair. In direct contrast to the hoopla running loose in the city with the Kentucky Derby less than three days away, an evening retrospective devoted to Farrar’s stark but oddly serene music – a blend of roots country inspirations wrapped up in a sort of folk noir ambience – amounted to shelter from the storm. That Farrar performed in a stripped down, semi-acoustic setting with guitarist, fiddler, mandolinist and pedal steel ace Gary Hunt as his only accompanist enhanced the sense of performance intimacy all the more.
Although the 85 minute set went heavy on the narrative heavy moodpieces Farrar has penned for the various Son Volt lineups he has led since the band returned to active duty nearly a decade ago, the repertoire was essentially a career overview. It included tunes penned for collaborative albums with Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard (the folky travelogue California Zephyr) and Gob Iron mate Anders Parker (the eloquently rootsy Hard Times) as well as an all-star project that offered new music for lost Woody Guthrie lyrics (the exquisitely wistful Hoping Machine).
There was also a run through Farrar’s own past that began with a revisit to his neglected 2001 solo album Sebastopol (Barstow), a trio of tunes from the original ‘90s Son Volt crew (highlight by the “dusted off” chestnut Back Into Your World) and even a snapshot from the folkier side of his tenure with the famed alt-country troupe Uncle Tupelo (Grindstone).
Fascinating as the retrospective was, the newer Son Volt tunes best suited the duo setting with Hunt (the band’s current co-guitarist) while reflecting Farrar’s unassuming depth and a vocalist and writer.
Upholding the former was Down to the Wire, from 2009’s American Central Dust, where Farrar’s singing poured, and eventually hardened, over the song’s lovely, languid melody like candle wax. Ditto for The Picture, which downshifted from it brassy inception on 2007’s The Search into a harmonica-drenched, Neil Young-like affirmation.
The six tunes offered from 2013’s Honky Tonk were rooted, not surprisingly, in varying shades of traditional country sentiment, from “the sound of heartbreak from a jail cell” in Bakersfield to the fiddle-fueled waltz upended by Hunt during Hearts and Minds.
This is how retrospective shows ought to run – with a broad and not-always-obvious glance at the past that sets up an assured, vital portrait of the here and now.