Son Volt: Ludlow Garage; Cincinnati, OH; Saturday, September 18, 2021
As someone who lived in St. Louis from late ’83 thru the middle of ’08 and wrote semi-professionally about music for many of those years – contributing to the two largest publications that followed the music scene, The Riverfront Times and Post-Dispatch, as well as a local music fanzine, The Spotlight – I had numerous opportunities and the privilege to watch Uncle Tupelo grow to gain national acclaim, to attend their final weekend stand at Mississippi Nights, and then as both Son Volt and Wilco rose from its ashes. Since moving to Ohio, I’ve had numerous opportunities to catch Jeff Tweedy and his Wilco mates live, most recently just a few weeks back at the WonderBus festival in Columbus, but this is the first time I’ve seen able Jay Farrar’s Son Volt, since the band’s early days, and I was anxious to hear the band play tracks for their latest release, Electro Melodier.
The recently renovated Ludlow Garage is actually a basement venue in the Clifton neighborhood just down the street from that landmark Skyline Chili restaurant, and while it is a unique L-shaped space, offered good sound and nice sightlines unless you were too far back where seats were available. Son Volt was preceded by a 40-minute set from country singer/songwriter and Rounder recording artist, John R. Miller backed only by a second guitarist who played excellent pedal steel.
The band it the stage shortly after 9:30 and launched immediately in “The 99,” Farrar’s treatise on the “trickle down” economy for the “Union” album, but wasted little time between song before launching into that big bluesy groove of “Arkey Blue.” Farrar carries himself like a man on a mission, eager to get down to business, and his band matches his tone and temperament. Newest member, guitarist John Horton, fresh from the Bottle Rockets leaned into that second numbers guiding riff, and hit it hard again when it cycled back around, but Farrar led the band through the crunchy chord changes to end the song just as things were starting the heat up. Mark Spencer’s organ swells set the tone for “Back Against the Wall,” with bassist Andrew DuPlantis adding harmony vocals to Farrar’s on the chorus.
Farrar moved from his hollow-body electric to a plug-in guitar with more of an acoustic sound for “The Picture,” and strapped on a harmonica rack for “The Reason,” Horton’s electric guitar adding fluid runs and fills. “Diamonds and Cigarettes,” another from the new one, followed with harmony vocals that could never have matched those of Laura Cantrell on the album. “Sinking Down” was a return to more of a stomping rocker, with drummer Matt Patterson kicking the beat, and Horton delivering a hot slide guitar solo during the break, followed by “Devil May Care,” with a similar feel.
By way of introducing “Hearts and Minds,” Farrar invited the crowd to “grab a partner for a Cincinnati two-step,” before honoring the songs country dance feel, with Spencer’s keyboard creating an accordion vibe, as he sang harmony vocals. Although they’d already played a couple new ones, Farrar announced that they were going to turn the focus to Electro Melodier, and then turned in a lovely performance of the disc’s opening track, “Reverie.”
Then, moving back to his electric guitar, Farrar led the band into the big rock chords of “The Globe,” as the volume coming out of the PA seemed to be getting louder with each song. They followed that with another from the latest album, “Lucky Ones,” with Farrar back into more of an acoustic mode, while the organ drenched track left room for a warm, emotional guitar solo from Horton. “Bandages & Scars” was another rocker, one with “Woody Guthrie’s words ringing” in all our heads.
Spencer proved his multi-instrumentalist bona fides for “Routes,” standing up from his keyboard to strap on the song’s third guitar, adding all those bent notes and taking the guitar solo on this solid rocker. As he quickly slipped back into his chair to warm up his organ, Farrar kicked off “Drown,” eliciting yelps of joy from the crowd. If drummer Patterson was hitting the cowbell on that one, which always stands out to me on the recording from the band’s debut, Trace, bit frankly it was so loud at this point that my earplugs were leaking and clarity was slipping away.
Things continued to heat up, “Afterglow 61” maintained that hard, hot rocking feel, with a lyric that always feels like a nod to Bob Dylan, eliciting another simmering guitar solo from Horton, who seemed to be overcoming his “new guy” seriousness, playing a slide solo for Farrar’s tribute to the girls on “Cherokee Street” back in the Lou. Switching quickly back to his acoustic sounding guitar, Farrar quickly introduced the band, and launched to country-leaning folk songs from that debut outing, two fan favorites, “Tear Stained Eye” and the driving benediction, “Windfall,” with Spencer now adding just the right amount of twang on his lap steel guitar, which ended the set proper.
The band didn’t leave us hanging for two long, and returned to play two rocking encores. Those classic guitar early 70’s rock chords, Pete Townshend used to introduce “The Seeker,” by The Who. I’m not sure how any guitar player can avoid the temptation to offer up a few of those trademark windmills playing that old nugget, but somehow Farrar and Horton managed, and Spencer was back on his keyboard. Then, an additional rocker for us old enough to remember, Farrar launched into his Uncle Tupelo classic, “Chickamauga,” and while content to stay in singer/songwriter mode until this point, leaving the guitar solo heavy lifting to others, here he dove in and played a smoking guitar solo, leaving me mindful of shows decades back. Proving that Son Volt remains a serious, talented and capable rock and roots band worthy of our time, attention and hard-earned concert cash. I’ll have more of this please, and soon.