When you walk through the SoHo (South of Houston Street) area of New York City at night, you can’t help but feel like you’ve stepped onto a movie set: dimly lit, cobblestone streets lead you past lucid plate-glass windows of art studios, flanked by high-curbed sidewalks, everything grey, white and black. Behind one of these windows is the site of tonight’s concert, a soft-lit bookstore, complete with winding staircases leading to pitch-black darkness and row after row of multi-volume works. Toward the back of the room is the stage, where singer/songwriter and six-string believer Jay Farrar is making his way, stare fixed upon the ground, ready to play.
Last fall, after wrapping up his Stone, Steel & Bright Lights solo tour, Farrar decided to reform his post-Uncle Tupelo country-rock outfit, Son Volt. Though the band has a new cast of characters, the songs are still Farrar’s, his voice and writing the epoxy that keeps the act in wide swing. Tonight, however, Farrar is by himself, and treats his audience—seated and standing among the piles of anthologies at this AIDS benefit—to offerings from the forthcoming Son Volt album, Okemah and the Melody of Riot, and a smattering from his back catalog.
Tonight’s set begins with two new Son Volt songs, “Afterglow 61,” a song that sounds like an outtake from the Wide Swing Tremolo sessions, and “Who,” which finds Farrar-the-wordsmith at his best. He then launches into “Make It Alright,” played in standard tuning, as it appears on the Stone, Steel & Bright Lights live album. “Greenwich Time” (oftentimes a set opener) accepts a few hollers of delight, as does another new Son Volt cut, “Gramophone,” a creeping tune in a stomping 4/4. Someone in the audience cheers for “No Rolling Back,” but the song actually turns out to be a new cut, the similar-sounding, “Ipecac” (which, if you’re wondering, is a first-aid-kit syrup used to induce vomiting after ingesting certain poisons). Instead, the song induces only cheers and applause. Farrar pauses to address the audience.
“I’ve never played a bookstore before. I’ve played other strange places—churches, cafeterias…” He trails off, strumming at his slack-tuned, drop-D guitar before coasting into “Driving the View.” Farrar then breaks into the East Indian flourishes of “Medication,” another new Okemah track. The tune ends in a sitar-like whirlwind of guitar, Farrar channeling Ravi Shankar (in cowboy boots). After this healthy dose of medicine, Farrar spins yet another new thread, singing the lyric, “the words of Woody Guthrie rang in my head.” He then unleashes his most politically-charged anthem to date, with protest lyrics speaking of “weapons of imagination,” “the ruling class [not fighting] the war,” and “sweet, black crude and red, white, and blue.” He completes his set with two staples from Trace, “Tear Stained Eye”—during which a heavy shelf of books somewhere upstairs comes crashing unexpectedly to the floor, startling the crowd—and “Windfall,” which always sounds like heaven.
After a brief interlude, Farrar returns to the stage for a one-song encore— “Damn Shame”—only to stride off the stage just as fast as he arrived, disappearing between the stacks of books as the crowd files into the darkness of the SoHo night.