SON VOLT with FRUIT BATS at the Opera House, October 17. Tickets: $22.50. Attendance: 290. Rating: NN
Remembering the days when Uncle Tupelo ruled as the perfect counter to the new black that was Seattle in its grungy prime, I couldn't help but be a little nostalgic as I got frisked by super-friendly security staff at the entrance to the lovely Opera House . Sure, when Tupelo dissolved, it was his partner, that Tweedy guy, who got all the glory fronting a little group called Wilco, but in the alt-country canon, getting a chance to stand a few feet from Jay Farrar was tantamount to a member of the blue rinse set getting a first-row table for Wayne Newton. After all, he is a legend, isn't he?
Son Volt is a group, but it's really just Farrar, and as if to prove the point, he's the only remaining member since he last recorded in this guise in 1998, so I expected the Opera House to be electric as he walked onstage, no matter what he was calling himself this time around.
Considering that it had been two years since he last played in T.O. (as Jay Farrar), I was a little surprised to find the place only about two-thirds full. Except for some fans who somehow managed ear-to-ear grins while singing along at the same time, you could have described the audience as decidedly laid back, even apathetic, as they sipped their beers, nodded their heads to the beat and talked to their friends, while Son Volt chugged along.
Maybe it was a case of "you gets what you give." For a writer and singer so adept at capturing the essence of human emotion in song, he barely showed any on this night. Looking like his dog just died, Farrar played with all the energy of someone with rigor mortis. I know he's all dark and introspective - feeling the weight of the human struggle with every quivering breath and all - but even Ian Curtis cracked the occasional smile now and then.
The music from his latest album, Okemah And The Melody Of Riot, provided some of the night's more rocking moments, but these never reached fever-pitch level, and against the older tunes it was clear that even with a snappier tempo Son Volt's music has a plodding sameness that makes it feel like you're listening to one long song with the occasional break. Farrar's lyrics are poignant and stirring, but his marble-mouth delivery makes early Michael Stipe seem downright intelligible by comparison.
With his oft-repeated "It's good to be back" and few changes to the album versions of the songs, it seemed Farrar and co. wanted to be anywhere but onstage. Who knows? Maybe his dog did die.