‘Scuse me, son, but I haven’t seen you hanging around with Chrissie Hynde lately?
Indeed. The pale, intense young fellow stage right at last night’s robust Son Volt gig at the 9:30 club was one James Walbourne, the British guitar prodigy whose serrated-edge leads make the current, boot-cut incarnation of The Pretenders so much fun. He’s even more valuable an addition to Son Volt, whose solid but often grayscale tunes — which aspire to be the iPhone era incarnation of Woody Guthrie’s dust-bowl ballads — tend to need the extra hooch more than Hynde’s do.
Son Volt is, you doubtless know, Jay Farrar’s band the way Wilco is Jeff Tweedy’s band. The two men were in Uncle Tupelo together, the group that invented country-rock, as Tweedy once joked. (Yes, Jeff Tweedy was the funny one. Any wonder that they broke up?) When the union dissolved in 1993, nobody would have bet that Tweedy would become the more successful of the pair. But while Wilco spent the latter half of the 90s getting better all the time, Son Volt/Farrar had the misfortune to make their very best record — 1995’s Trace — first.
Son Volt’s new American Central Dust isn’t as good as Trace, either. But it’s a confident, graceful record, one that boasts a lovely tribute to Keith Richards in “Cocaine and Ashes,” one of the best performances of the night. Nobody seemed to mind that Farrar found room for three quarters of the new disc in his generous 26-song set. He also played five from 2007’s The Search. Farrar’s confidence in his recent output isn’t misplaced, but it was a credit to the exemplary musicianship of his band that these songs sounded as vital and urgent as they did, especially given Farrar’s recent predilection to work in only one tempo — that’d be mid.
If Farrar happened to stack a few too many slow-burners atop one another in the show’s midsection, that at least gave you plenty of chances to notice that his voice — as pliant and distinct as Michael Stipe’s — has never sounded better. Stomping on the throttle, Walbourne flash-fired dour numbers like “Strength and Doubt” and “Medication” into thrilling new realms with his incendiary solos. And the show-closing cover of Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” gathered velocity like a tape deck with broken fast-forward button, ending the evening on a bracing note.
Extra credit to Farrar for leaving his coal-mining songs at home. He even had the good taste to omit “Sultana,” his requiem for the passengers of a steamboat that blew up on the Mississippi in 1865. It’s nice to hear a folkie whose head isn’t stuck in the sixties.
Son Volt at the 9:30 Club, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2009
2. Feel Free
3. Down to the Wire
4. Dust of Daylight
5. Highways and Cigarettes
6. Cocaine and Ashes (dedicated to Keith Richards)
7. When the Wheels Don’t Move
8. Ten-Second News
10. Pushed Too Far
11. Big Sur
13. Tear-Stained Eye
14. Strength and Doubt
15. No Turning Back
16. Hard Times
18. Damn Shame
19. The Search
20. Buzz and Grind
21. Bandages and Scars
22. Afterglow 61
24. Roll On
26. Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?