JAY FARRAR AND MARK SPENCER at Lee’s Palace (529 Bloor West), tonight (Thursday, June 17), 9:30 pm. $13.50. 416-532-1598. Rating: NNNNN
the fact that none of jay farrar's best-loved songs, written during his days with Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt, appear on his first officially sanctioned live recording, Stone, Steel & Bright Lights (Transmit Sound), or the accompanying DVD is guaranteed to cause heated discussion within the No Depression community.
However, the real source of controversy here is the forthright political nature of Farrar's two new compositions, Doesn't Have To Be This Way and 6 String Belief, slipped into the 19-track selection, which includes delightfully unhinged covers of Neil Young's Like A Hurricane and Pink Floyd's Lucifer Sam. You'd never guess it from the typically vague titles, but both new songs express a strong anti-Bush sentiment with a plain-spoken clarity rarely heard in the Farrar songbook.
Clearly Farrar believes the time for clever allegories is past and gone.
"I grew up listening to Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan," he explains, speaking softly and choosing his words carefully, "but I've always had an aversion to being politically overt in the songs I write. It just seems to date the material and make it more ephemeral. But in the current political climate, when things have strayed so far away from our American ideals – the furthest since the Nixon administration – it felt like the right thing to do."
Regrettably, U.S. artists who are willing to express dissenting opinions about their government's foreign policy are in the minority, and those like Farrar who have the courage to turn their outrage into music and then perform it, record it and release it are fewer still. Heard any provocative songs about the war in Iraq from Bob Dylan? Bruce Springsteen, maybe? How about the Dixie Chicks? Didn't think so.
"It depends on the individual, of course, but I think artists do have a responsibility to speak out through their creations. I don't think we can count on our professional sports stars to do it.
"I mean, I don't consider myself any kind of political activist, but it's no longer possible not to acknowledge what's going on in this country."
The appearance of Farrar's Stone, Steel & Bright Lights live set couldn't have been better timed, since it coincides with the release of the new A Ghost Is Born album from his ex-bandmate Jeff Tweedy (see sidebar) and the publication of Greg Kot's Wilco book Learning How To Die, in which Farrar features much more prominently than he anticipated.
Evidently Chicago Tribune music critic Kot neglected to tell Farrar that the book's first seven chapters would be devoted to the rise and fall of his former band Uncle Tupelo.
"When Greg approached me about the book, he told me it was going to be about the Jayhawks, Wilco and Uncle Tupelo, so I thought it was a genre study, but I guess it wound up being something completely different."
That helps explain why Farrar was willing to participate in a Wilco book that portrays him as the heavy in the demise of Uncle Tupelo.
"I haven't read the book, but I saw the chapter that was reprinted in No Depression. Someone asked me if I thought if was a fair representation, and I wouldn't call it fair in the sense of being balanced. In the whole chapter about the breakup of Uncle Tupelo there's maybe one quote from me, even though Greg interviewed me for several hours."
At the moment, Farrar is touring as a duo with lap steel sidekick Mark Spencer, but he's also writing songs for a new album with musical collaborators yet to be determined. A future Son Volt reunion hasn't been ruled out.
"There's still a possibility that we could do another Son Volt album. We recently recorded a cover of Alejandro Escovedo's Sometimes for a benefit album, and it felt good to get back with those guys. The idea all along was that it would be a hiatus, but circumstances can take you in unexpected directions. I hope we will work together again."
Life after Death
wilco A Ghost Is Born (Nonesuch)
Reducing your band to a few talented but wishy-washy yes-men while turfing those who dare question your judgment is never a good plan. While rehab alumnus Jeff Tweedy’s escaped relatively unscathed thus far, the ratio of self-indulgent meandering to fully realized songs on A Ghost Is Born suggests his tiny dictatorship is finally starting to unravel. I’m not dissing the dude’s Jim O’Rourke-assisted forays into experimental post-rockiness – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot had some stunning avant moments, and Ghost’s wispier weird tunes are quite pretty. At best, Tweedy evokes Lou Reed and Nick Drake with introspective, delicate rambles. But there are too many wanky guitar solos and piano-bouncy pop tunes that sound like Tweedy’s channelling Rickie Lee Jones, and Handshake Drugs is a duller Heavy Metal Drummer. I blame it on Vicodin. Just say no, kids.
by sarah Liss