Jay Farrar possesses one of the most unassuming performing styles in all of rock and country music — his demeanor shy and his thoughts, as derived from his colorful and striking lyrics, of riding highways through the South and Midwest, longing for a simpler edition of love and America. His vision is a distinct echo of honky-tonkers and rock ‘n’ rollers, from George Jones to the underappreciated Del Lords, yet within the burgeoning “alternative country” movement he is the beacon and his band, Son Volt, the movement’s finest.
Tuesday’s show at the crowded El Rey was another chapter of brisk reading in the Son Volt scrapbook, a neatly arranged set with the weepy country balladry upfront, a rock ‘n’ roll midsection and encores of brazen acoustic rockers. In 100 minutes, Son Volt affirmed themselves as the visage of this rudderless and mostly indie phenomenon, a movement, if you will, that seems to not be pushing too hard for its big commercial break. The days of lamenting the end of Uncle Tupelo, from which Son Volt and Wilco sprang, are over.
Son Volt used its catchy rock tunes as back-end enforcers, taking the first 40 minutes to waltz through breezy country numbers. The sameness of the material, however, works like a long establishing shot in a film, setting the mood with pedal steel, sleepy banjo and languorous fiddle. Kick in the amps and the jolt is that much more effective.
In each segment, audience reaction takes its cues from the vibe rather than any particular song, and Farrar maximizes that with a gentle yet crisp pacing and no between-song banter. And as rock solid as the instrumentalists are, Farrar’s vocals, paired effectively at times with Jim Boquist to cut through the denseness of uptempo numbers, provide the direction and body of Son Volt.
Certainly there’s danger in dissecting each element, but at every step of the way, Son Volt delivers: the Americana of “Tear Stained Eye’s” lyric, “walking down Main Street, looking for purpose under a neon sign”; the stray guitar line that holds together the muscular chords of “Route 5”; the absorption of an acoustic Beatles influence on “No More Parades”; and the whole of the new Warners disc “Straightaways,” a more personal take than its predecessor, a virtual travelogue.
As deserving as Son Volt is to be the “alternative country” breakthrough act (arguably Wilco has dibs, yet Jeff Tweedy’s act seems too sprawling), the band’s concert lands between the local debuts of two serious up-and-comers that may set in motion a profound acceptance at retail: Mammoth Records’ Backsliders and Geffen’s Big Blue Hearts. They represent the breadth of this alleged movement: The Backsliders showing Saturday at Jack’s Sugar Shack was a spunky and relentlessly upbeat attack that assimilates Gram Parsons, Buck Owens and Keith Richards into a modern country-rock shell. San Francisco’s Big Blue Hearts, which open for Joe Walsh Tuesday and Wednesday at the House of Blues, approach their country-rock blend from the softer side: the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, twangy balladry and a smooth pop tunefulness.
These are the guitar bands of the ’90s, a winning combination of honesty and assimilation that, to date, has remained generally under wraps and away from the 25-and-older mainstream that might well be its next audience. Expect to see the majors not only embracing it, but giving it a leg up, soon.