Son Volt: Notes of Blue review and Atlanta road dispatch
By Kevin Broughton
Don’t get down when the Cavalry doesn’t ride; doesn’t mean that Hollywood didn’t get it right.
So begins what may be the most Son Volt album ever.
We spent some time in this space six weeks ago mulling over an old Son Volt record, and how it should be judged against the band’s body of work. In the process of that look back -- which corresponded with the release of Notes of Blue, its eighth studio album not counting compilations – a thought occurs to the dedicated Son Volt fan. To wit: This band will always be whatever Jay Farrar finds compelling at any given moment.
If he finds something interesting that needs a new voice or interpretation, we’re gonna get a new Son Volt album. If it resonates with the folks, great. If not, that’s okay too, because Jay’s gonna do his thing. Case in point, 2013’s Honky Tonk, Farrar’s sublimely faithful send-up of the Bakersfield sound. Which itself was the first peep heard from him since 2009.
As the simply self-evident title suggests, Farrar decided he’d do a blues record. And he did, man, and put a stamp on it only he could. Notes of Blue, which Jay says is influenced heavily by Mississippi Fred McDowell and Skip James, certainly isn’t your conventional blues deal. It’s alternately rambling and driving, with the customary stop-go tempo changes that date back to Uncle Tupelo thrown in. There’s a cowboy ethos…as many Westerns as are coming out these days – remake and original – Notes of Blue should be a soundtrack to one of them.
And it’s a bunch of wonderfully different tunings (which made for frequent equipment changes live, see below), 30 minutes efficiently packed into 10 songs. There’s vitality, there’s brooding, and sheer badassery on “Threads and Steel.” But as the opening cut, “Promise the World,” passes the Bakersfield-to-blues baton between albums.
And it was often the pedal steel-playing of [some dude] that got the crowd’s attention time again at Atlanta’s Terminal West on March 10. I’m sorry, but as we acknowledged earlier, “Son Volt” is Jay and whomever is behind him at the moment. The guy on steel was exceptional, and played keyboards really well, too. [That one guy] on bass sang competent harmonies. The band was tight. Oh, wait.
Opening act? Yeah, there was one at the sold-out (625, standing) venue.
Let me tell you about him for just a second. The advertised bill was SON VOLT WITH JOHNNY IRION. So I Googled the guy.
Oh, good. The Google hit reveals some hippie-communist-douchebag who decided to prove his bona fides by doing an anti-Trump song.
Wow, guy. You must be legit! And courageous. It takes a lot of balls to write songs hating on a Republican. Is it lonely out there on that bastion? You know, I didn’t vote for president last year, my first time ever taking a pass at the top of the ticket. But, dude. Since you’re a musician, I’m starting to come around to your way of thinking. Tell me more.
Wait, what? Your wife is Woody Guthrie’s commie granddaughter? And y’all did a trio – no kidding – with Pete Seeger’s Bolshevik great grandson or some such?
Oh, wow, Johnny. You’ve swayed me. I’m a Democrat now. I demand that boys be allowed in girls’ bathrooms. Immediately, and anyone who objects is a bigot.
Good job, Johnny. I just wish I’d been born in time to march with an NVA flag and spit on Vietnam vets in airports.
Sorry. Yeah, let’s keep politics out of music. He did some songs. I didn’t listen.
The show was great. Farrar – did his hair seem unnaturally dark, and did that question seem catty – led the band onstage and quickly into “Cherokee Street,” emphasizing the Cowboys-and-Indians vibe of the record. They played all but one of the cuts off the new album, and oddly, not a single one from the last. The balance of the 20-plus song set was a healthy sampler of Son Volt’s best work.
Trace, appropriately, was well represented, with “Tear Stained Eye,” “Catching On,” “10 Second News,” “Route,” “Drown,” and “Windfall” making the list. The highlight for a lot of folks was an encore that featured three Uncle Tupelo Cuts. I’d never heard the lovely “Still Be Around” live before, and it was awesome.
Trailer tells me Farrar’s on Twitter these days. That’s neat. He was more interactive March 10 than I’ve ever seen him. He said lots of words.
“How’s everybody doing tonight? You guys okay?”
“Hey, thanks a lot.”
“Thanks. I’d like to introduce the members of the band. [Proceeds to do so.]”
He’s never been that chatty. And he changed guitar about every 1.7 songs. Freaky tunings.
Know what he didn’t say? Anything about politics.
Notes of Blue is available everywhere you can purchase music, except Walmart probably.