Rock stars they are not. Extroverts they are not. Cowboys they are.
At their concert at Peabody's in Cleveland on Tuesday, Son Volt showed their true identity, their closeness as a band and their love of country twang playing behind loner vocals and strong guitars.
Walking on stage, the band picked up guitars and drumsticks without a word to the audience and broke into "Route." They remained reticent throughout the show, letting their personality emerge only through the music. Dressed in the ubiquitous flannel shirts and worn jeans, with heavy work shoes, they wore clothes best-suited for a road trip out West or an evening in a nameless country bar.
The energy of the opening number was captured when drummer Mike Heidorn snapped a drumstick, only to pick up another mid-beat. The splintered one remained on the stage, next to one of the set lists, for most of the show until a roadie cleared it off before the second encore.
One highlight of the show was the beautiful rendition of "Windfall," about the fifth song, in which lead vocalist and guitarist Jay Farrar's voice broke expertly and the sight of a long flat road and pick-up almost seemed to emerge from beneath the twang of Eric Haywood's pedal steel guitar playing. During "Windfall" bassist Jim Boquist smiled for the first time. It was a slight grin, seemingly arising from the audience's increased energy at the first notes of the song.
Hidden beneath the band's stoic faces was a strong love for their music as well as a very tight and communicative group. At moments when the band's music swelled just right, or Farrar's voice cracked with extra feeling, Boquist's smug smile emerged again, just beneath the stubble on his cheeks. Often while Farrar was singing, Boquist, Heidorn, or Boquist's brother Dave Boquist, who plays guitar, fiddle, banjo and dobro, sang along, off-mike, with just as much feeling as Farrar.
Although Farrar and Jim Boquist never exchanged a glance, the two men shared a near-perfect rhythm from which emerged the heart of Son Volt's performance. Heidorn shared a similar connection; he was often watching the two fronters as they leaned into the mikes for his cue to begin drumming. Dave Boquist seemed less connected to the group, as did Heywood.
The songs off the band's album "Traces" sounded very much like the recordings, and little improvisation took place. Thus many of the highlights were songs not on the album. The band did a cover of a delightful country/western Stanley Brothers song extolling a woman who "has had too much fun," and urging her friends to love her anyway. While the message was reminiscent of Liz Phair, the song's strong honky-tonk sound was very swayable, and the cowboy boots on Dave Boquist seemed most appropriate.
The climax of the show was neither of the encores, but instead near the end of the first set, when the band broke into a very powerful version of "Drown." Between verses Jim Boquist backed away from the mike in order to have enough room to stomp around in. Farrar also moved away from the mike, turning around, completely absorbed in mixing the layers of music.
Farrar sang with his eyes closed most of the time, and when he did open them he focused on the air in front of him or on the ground. There was very little contact, either verbal or implied between the audience and the band, and although their self-absorption showed a strong sense of group and a deep involvement in the music, they did not appear very friendly. Instead the cowboys remained stoically silent, letting the words of the songs speak for themselves.
The songs held clear messages of simplicity and solitude. There were no love songs and no catchy MTV melodies. Instead the band, like cowboys, played real, hardy, well-rehearsed and rough country-rock. The apparent distance from the audience was deceiving because in truth they had a lot to say to the listeners. It was just in the band's personality to say those things through their music instead of unnecessary jokes and insincere words. They also were obviously tight as a group, so close they appeared to be uninterested in each other.
Copyright © 1996, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 124, Number 23; May 3, 1996
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