In 1994, I was a student living in the small college town of Lawrence, Kansas. Only thirty minutes from Kansas City, and host to thirty thousand university students, Lawrence was (and is still) privy to one of the best music scenes in the country. During a chilly spring evening in April, I saw Uncle Tupelo play at the local college rock venue, The Bottleneck, and I was hooked.
Alt Country wasn’t a completely new idea to me at the time — I’d spent a good chunk of my teenage years listening to “cow punk” staples like Cowboy Junkies and The Vandals — but the level of pure, intense power propelled out into the audience by Uncle Tupelo was new to me. Country wasn’t supposed to kick my ass, but there was no denying it had just happened.
Nearly two decades later, Uncle Tupelo is no more and the founding members have split into two distinctive groups, Wilco, lead by Jeff Tweedy, and Son Volt, lead by Jay Farrar. Both groups have strong merits, but I get most nostalgic about Jay Farrar and Son Volt. The vocals, musicianship, and lyrics are comforting, and something I strongly associate with my college experience.
After a musically solid — but somewhat goofy — set of covers by some of Son Volt’s core players performing under the moniker “Colonel Ford” (which also includes Farrar’s brother, Dade), Jay Farrar and the band’s guitarist/keyboardist came to the stage. Reunited as a unit, and fronted by Farrar’s pure voice, Son Volt began a nearly two hour set with “Down the Wire” and traveled through a wide range of their catalog, harmonizing their way through conflicts, both personal and political.
There was a point, about an hour into the show, where it became apparent that they needed to change up the set list. There had been a few too many slow rolling country tunes, and the energy level in the room fell to a rough low. Happily, they woke up the room when they launched into the psychedelic anthem, “Medication,” and spent the next hour adeptly maneuvering through faster, more energetic songs like “Afterglow 61,” and wrapping up with “Drown” and “Tear Stained Eye,” both from Son Volt’s debut album, Trace. And, to the delight of the long-time Farrar fans, they closed out their second encore with the Uncle Tupelo classic, “Chickamauga.”
There has been somewhat of an unspoken rivalry between Farrar and Wilco’s Tweedy over the years, and there are those folks who would say Wilco came out on the top, after all was said and done. Yet after watching both bands make their way through the world over the last two decades, I can’t help but feel that Son Volt and Farrar are the ones who have kept the heart and soul of the genre alive. There is a strong sense of soulfulness to Son Volt’s work that keeps me coming back, time and again. If you get the opportunity to do so, give them some of your time and money. It’s worth the investment.