April 11th, 2007
There is perhaps no better way that doesn’t involve alcohol to begin your pre-concert experience than with pierogi and a cute Polish girl. Such was the case last night in Chicago where The Dulcinea and I went to see Son Volt at the Vic Theatre.
We made good time getting into the Big City and stopped at The Pierogi Factory a block from the theatre. With 15 flavors of pierogi, kielbasa, cabbage rolls, and blintzes, methinks Madison needs one of these. Nothing like Polish fast food. If you get the chance, get the spinach-meat variety as they were great. After shoveling a super-sampler platter into our gullets, we headed over to the theatre.
It had been almost 2 years since we were at the Vic. The last time was for the final show of Wilco’s multi-night stand where they filmed the performances for a DVD release that never materialized. Last night the joint was full and the Miller Lite flowed steadily for many a concertgoer. Opening the performance was Jason Isbell. I discovered 2 or 3 songs in that he had been in the Drive By Truckers, a band I’d heard of but never heard. Unfortunately, I probably won’t check them out in the near future as I was not impressed with Isbell. His voice sounded too much like that of a turbo tonker out of Nashville and the music was unremarkable. During their set, Son Volt keyboardist Derry deBorja wandered around in front of us.
Son Volt took to the stage a bit after 9 and opened with “Automatic Society” from their latest, The Search. It got things off to a rockin’ start and they proceeded to play a large chunk of new material. “Satellite” and “The Search” followed immediately. New guitarist Chris Masterson fit in well and added some well-crafted slide work. For “The Picture”, a live horn section was added. “Underground Dream” and “Circadian Rhythm” came off well as did the two tunes from the album that can claim alt-country heritage, “Methamphetamine” and “Highways and Cigarettes”. I missed the vocals of Shannon McNally who appears on the studio version of the latter. Andrew Duplantis’ mic needs to be turned up a bit for his backing vocals. The former is an unlikely sing-a-long but I found myself singing it anyway as the chorus is amongst Farrar’s catchiest.
My main complaint here was the two guys standing in front of me who, at about 6′5″ each, were obstacles to be reckoned with. But it’s not their height that irked me, but rather the fact that they just had to carry on a conversation with each other for most of the time.
After this initial blast from The Search, the band stepped back in time, if only to 2005’s Okemah and the Melody of Riot. It soon became apparent that Son Volt Mk II would be the emphasis this night. “Bandages & Scars”, “Jet Pilot”, and “Who” were all trotted out. A guy to our right got really excited by hearing “Jet Pilot” and starting getting down. Well, as much as we white guys can. He began shouting for “Endless War” which didn’t bother me a bit. It was good to see someone there who enjoyed the newer tunes and wasn’t there purely to hear “Windfall” and “Tear-Stained Eye”. His request was not fulfilled but the boys did do a killer version of the Eastern-tinged “Medication”. This part of the set served as a reminder as to just what a great album Okemah is and how much power the songs gain in the live context.
A couple Farrar solo tunes got thrown into the mix as well – “Damn Shame” and “Barstow”. After this diversion, the crowd got an unexpected treat in the form of “Exurbia”. It’s a song left off The Search but available on iTunes and the vinyl version of the album as well. It found Farrar with his acoustic guitar strapped on and is a mid-tempo number. Think along the lines of “Gramophone”. Somewhere around this time they played “Tear-Stained Eye” and, well, my eyes teared up. They always do when they play this song. Too many memories of ex-girlfriends and of driving home along the Mississippi from Louisiana after my father’s death. “Action” brought back the raga rock of “Medication” for a bit and heavy “Route” got the crowd ready for more older songs and they got “Drown”. “Afterglow 61″, another new classic, ended the set on a (very) high note.
It wasn’t long before the guys returned to the stage and launched into “Windfall”. Farrar then started cranking out the reggae riff of “Armagideon Time” but the lyrics were wrong, yet oddly familiar. They turned out to be “Life Worth Livin’”. A blazing “Chickamauga” – now with even more feedback – finished the night off.
On their last tour, Son Volt, played a heady mix of old and new songs along with a hefty dose of Jay Farrar’s solo material. Perhaps this was calculated to reintroduce themselves to fans after a lengthy absence. And with that being done, the band is concentrating on newer songs. While I think Wide Swing Tremelo is a vastly underrated album and missed hearing anything from it, I respect the band’s decision. The past two albums have been strong and so there’s plenty of great material to showcase. My main quarrel is with the order of the setlist. I wish they hadn’t segregated songs from different albums as much as they did as the material from Okemah would have fit very well along side the newest crop of tunes.
Despite my quibbles, Son Volt put on a great show. It was nice’n'loud as my ringing ears proved last night. Most importantly, the new material stood up well. Given time, songs like “Methamphetamine” and “Action” will become classics.