Politics are almost inherent, if not overt, when bands play in the Washington, D.C., area. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard 1960s protest songs played — often with an extra dose of passion — as encores at shows.
Son Volt, the alt-rock/alt-country band led by Jay Farrar, didn’t need covers to weigh in on the state of our country Sunday at the 9:30 Club. More than half of the band’s new album, “Union,” deals with the state of the state as Farrar sees it.
And that state, starting with show opener “The 99,” is not good in his view. Farrar’s anthem name checks protests over the Dakota Pipeline and the Ferguson, Mo. shooting that occurred near his St. Louis home and blasts those who allow “desecration of the land for the almighty dollar.”
While seeming to channel Roy Orbison in looks, complete with long bangs and sunglasses that never came off, Farrar’s lyrics and the band’s sound brought to mind Woody Guthrie via The Byrds and Tom Petty. Those references are not an insult; if anything, hearing the career spanning mix from Son Volt’s eight album, 23-year history showed how consistent the band has been despite numerous personnel changes.
Live, what impressed me most is how the new mix of songs on “Union” complement its back catalogue. The reason of course, is Farrar. He let the lyrics and music speak for itself throughout the 1-hour, 40-minute show, speaking little if at all between songs. The current Son Volt lineup — Andrew Duplantis (bass, backing vocals), Mark Patterson (drums), Chris Frame (guitar) and Mark Spencer (keyboard, steel guitar) — provided strong and richly textured support throughout.
“Union,” of course, dominated much of the show’s first half with six cuts, including “Reality Winner” (about a decorated veteran serving jail time for leaking confidential documents) as well as the less topical “Devil May Care” and “The Reason.” A personal favorite was “The Picture,” which fit the mood even though it was written more than a decade ago for 2007’s “The Search.”
Famously founded after Farrar and Jeff Tweedy split up Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt’s debut album — 1995’s “Trace” — remains perhaps its best known. Not surprisingly, the band saved songs from “Trace” until the show’s end, performing “Route,” “Drown,” a beautiful and chilling “Tear Stained Eye,” and set closer “Windfall” in a cluster broken up only by the rocker “Afterglow 61” (from 2005’s “Okemah and Melody of Riot”).
Ian Noe, a Kentucky native whose debut album “Between the Country,” will be released May 31, set the stage for the band with a series of original songs and a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” Noe’s album was produced by Dave Cobb, and he is scheduled to open this summer on tours with both Blackberry Smoke and Jamestown Revival, so you’ll likely hear more about him this year.
This review appears on the Americana Highways website.
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