This is the first show I’ve been to all year where I would describe the crowd as an “adult” crowd. Not like adult films, but where the majority of the crowd was at least 30-years-old and up. Men in plaid shirts, hats, and clutching craft beers were mostly in groups of men dressed exactly the same. Women were dressed classy, but not showy and politely enjoyed wine and conversation before the show. Arriving about 10 minutes before the set, I found myself in the back row of a sold-out Kessler Theater. Nevertheless, I had a clear line of sight to the stage and the intimate Kessler is the perfect venue for tonight’s show.
Jay Farrar is celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Son Volt’s 1995 debut album Trace, and subsequently reviewing the album in its entirety in a stripped down, mostly acoustic setting. Basically, Jay is going to stick to an acoustic guitar and bring along a pedal-steel player and second electric guitarist, but leave the drummer and bass player at home. This trio would go on to run through, out-of-order, the songs of Trace, and a selection of post-Trace Son Volt and Farrar tracks, in a flawless and brilliant set.
The live sound and acoustics at the Kessler are impeccable. And you know what else? Jay Farrar has a damn good singing voice. For all the critical acclaim directed towards his songwriting, far too few of us are talking about his singing. On every song, but particularly, “Ten Second News,” and “Tear Stained Eye,” Farrar’s voice filled the theater and sounded exactly like it did two decades ago. I can’t say that Farrar’s voice has improved over time, but it certainly hasn’t diminished.
Throughout the night, Farrar was largely down to business. Generally a laconic guy, aside from a “How-ya-doin’ Dallas?” or two, he was focused on the songs and his job to deliver a first-rate performance. The crowd politely sang-along in an almost-whisper to most of the songs, but just like any other artist/show, “Drown” – the albums single – got the biggest rise and sing-a-long out of the crowd. Other album tracks, like “Windfall” and “Live Free” sounded just as fresh and poignant as if he had written them 20-minutes ago, much less 20 years. Even if the lyric “I want to see your smile through a pay phone” may be lost on the younger crowd (it’s okay, they weren’t there).
When he announced that the Trace portion of the night had ended, one fan called out, “Play the whole thing, again!” While most of the crowd cheered in agreement, Farrar and his band mates moved on. The songs that followed were just as great as the Trace tracks. Perhaps they lacked the nostalgic patina of the Trace songs, but they were treated with the same care and execution in their performance. Consequently, they could’ve been playing anything and it would’ve sounded great.
If you get a chance to see Jay Farrar do the Trace album in this intimate and unplugged setting, don’t pass it up. You’ll find yourself with one foot in the past, one in the present, and completely satisfied to disregard the future.
– J. Kevin Lynch