Jay Farrar, Canyon, Mark Spencer

Prospect Park Bandshell, Brooklyn, N.Y. 7/24/04

Music Reviews Jay Farrar
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Jay Farrar, Canyon, Mark Spencer

Jay Farrar finally seems comfortable. After founding formative alt.country act Uncle Tupelo, releasing three albums with his Farther Along-era-Byrds country-rock outfit Son Volt, and releasing three solo albums, he seems to have accepted his role as alt.country royalty, weaving his three-phased career into a show of purified country-rock bliss.

This third phase sees his music enriched by a never-waning respect for rock and country’s masters, as he carves an easily identifiable sound and unique stream-of-consciousness lyrical collage. On tour as a solo act, with the days of band politics and attempts to please record companies in the distant past, Farrar has returned to his roots, while his lyrical tone, musicianship and thematic direction have matured. His songs have become poignantly private, emitting a comfort level never before seen by the historically introverted musician. His first-person accounts of coal miners, wrecking ball operators and local drunks are now few and far between.

Now that it’s just him onstage performing his songs—save the guitars of Mark Spencer (of the Blood Oranges) and the occasional backing of Canyon—his live concerts are the perfect marriage of intimacy and sincerity. With rain in the forecast and formidable clouds hovering over the Prospect Park Bandshell, the crowd that gathered to watch Farrar play an evening set in Brooklyn really didn’t know what to expect. Fortunately, it received its time and (donated) money’s worth (the show was presented for free by Celebrate Brooklyn with a “suggested” donation of five dollars).

Farrar presented the seated crowd with a heavy dosage of numbers from his latest (and first live album in nearly ten years), Stone, Steel & Bright Lights. As expected, the introductory song was “Greenwich Time,” a stark trio of harmonica, acoustic guitar and voice, a call-to-arms, or saying of grace. For the main course, Farrar was joined by Spencer and members of Canyon to hatch through tracks from his solo albums Sebastopol and Terroir Blues. Choice cuts included the brand new “6 String Belief” and “Doesn’t Have To Be This Way,” “Feel Free,” “Make It Alright” (which has lost its slack tuning, but is just as effective), “Voodoo Candle,” the doomsday lullaby “Barstow,” “Cohokian”—which has picked up a more anxious rhythm in its live incarnation—and the electro-charged “Fool King’s Crown,” a hayride romp that got the crowd of concertgoers stomping its feet.

The show's second half, which featured Farrar and Spencer as a duo, proved the most exciting. Delving into his Son Volt and Uncle Tupelo catalog, Farrar—joking with the crowd, “nobody told me when to stop [playing]”—treated the loudly cheering coterie of fans to Trace’s “Windfall” and “Tear Stained Eye,” Wide Swing Tremolo’s “Driving the View,” and the rarely performed “Still Be Around,” from Uncle Tupelo’s second album, Still Feel Gone.

The two final songs, delay-and-distortion-pedal-heavy covers of Pink Floyd’s “Lucifer Sam” and Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane,” with Canyon reprising its role as backing band, slightly bastardized the definition of “encore” (these songs comprise the two final tracks on the new live album), but were still the perfect curtain call.

In the end, the audience erupted with a standing ovation of respect, echoing a gratitude for the three shades of Jay Farrar, each making a triumphant appearance in the night’s masterwork. And unlike the final song, Mother Nature kept at bay, without a single drop of rain descending on the crowd.