The worst thing you can say about any form of popular music, but rock music especially, is that it is polite. Let it be wild and outrageous, energetic and enthused, upbeat and dynamic -- and any other rock cliché you can name. Let it not be confined to a concert hall where an audience's worst offense is to be audible or to sing along too loudly. Be polite in life; be a bloody bastard when you strap on a guitar.
But the politesse of the Sheldon Concert Hall is part of its attraction; that and its priceless acoustics. Jay Farrar has never played in the 99-year-old establishment before. He is a polite man; his music never is. Last night, the juxtaposition worked over the course of 24 songs that unfolded like mysteriously interconnected scenes from a surreal dream.
The Sheldon Sessions, the latest partnership between 88.1 KDHX (where I've long been a DJ; I agreed to emcee the show) and the Sheldon, kicked off with Farrar and Bobby Bare Jr., a strange pairing on the face of it, despite their shared left-of-center country leanings. Bare is an erratic enfant terrible of song. He can be deliberately or just drunkenly sloppy and sonically abrasive. Last night he was simply on: charming, relaxed, quirky and deadly with a punch line. He imagined his or anyone's demise: "Who loved this person enough to kill this person?" he asked. "That's what all of my songs are about."
At least that's what "Valentine" is about, one of his catchiest tunes, delivered with foot stomping on a tambourine, hands strumming hard on a guitar that looked to belong to his father's father's father. He rolled vowels around in his mouth like jawbreakers and told stories of life in Nashville, where the "greatest guitar pickers in the world will deliver your pizza or sell you weed," and confessed to barely making it through rehab in the '90s. Bare worked the stage, capitalizing on the room's acoustics by stepping away from the mic to sing a ditty about a rock & roll Halloween party. He won over a crowd that had likely heard of him but never heard him before. He deserved the standing ovation.
In between records this fall, Jay Farrar has launched a few solo dates, accompanied only by veteran guitarist Gary Hunt, de facto leader of Colonel Ford, the local honky tonk band in which Farrar moonlights on pedal steel. The two have played New York and are getting ready for a West Coast run at the end of the month. At previous solo shows in town, Farrar selected Blood Oranges' guitarist Mark Spencer for back up. A brilliant slide player, Spencer's sound always put pressure on the darker, harder weight of Farrar's songs. Hunt's approach is wholly different, relying on speed and agility, spark showers of notes on a Telecaster and mandolin. I've seen Hunt play dozens of times. He's never sounded so free, so stunning as last night with Farrar's deceptively-structured, always challenging material.
Starting with the stomp of Farrar's boot, the two began with a trio of the songwriter's most apocalyptic lyrics: "Down to the Wire," "The Picture" and "When the Wheels Don't Move." All three came from the last two Son Volt albums, The Search and American Central Dust. Those albums were most favored last night, with only "Barstow" and "Feel Free" pulled from Farrar's official solo work, and only "Big Sur" and "San Francisco" from the Kerouac project with Ben Gibbard. Farrar turned but once to the Uncle Tupelo catalog -- the reliable "Still Be Around," as part of the encore. If hardcore fans might have wished for "Slate" (recently played in New York) or a few more early career gems, they could hardly have wished for more surprising choices or finer pacing over all. We got a new, unreleased song from the forthcoming Woody Guthrie project New Multitudes -- probably titled "Hoping Machine" -- and another new original, "Down the Highway," likely for the next Son Volt album, with a classic Farrar chorus -- "Life is a shell game, lessons lost, lessons learned" -- and some terrific, end-of-the-night fiddle from fellow Colonel Forder Justin Branum.
Farrar knows -- and his audience knows it too -- that he is first and foremost a songwriter, an exceptional musician to be sure, but it's by his words and melodies, and his delivery of the same, that his performances stand or fall. No one could have asked for greater musicianship or more profound singing, fuller or deeper ways of realizing his songs, than on the Sheldon stage last night. On the overlooked road song "Highways and Cigarettes," Farrar's phrasing curled and floated like smoke signals, as Hunt lent gold-toned country harmonies to the choruses. Those harmonies returned on a sumptuously-paced "Tear Stained Eye" and on "Dynamite" and made all three live in new ways.
Ultimately the concert, Farrar's first St. Louis date since his June 2010 appearance at the Old Rock House, looked not backwards but forwards, though the past was always in tow. With years, most notably with his commitment to the "defeat Bush at all costs" movement of the mid 2000s, Farrar's songs have changed, even as his music has stayed stubbornly grounded in the blues and country bedrock.
Once he asked, "Can you deny there's nothing greater, nothing more than the traveling hands of time?" Yes, you can, he now seems to answer. Against time, but never beyond it, he posits an impulse for freedom, the flame inside every artist -- bluesman, rocker, poet -- and in the songs that fill a "jukebox of steel." Even if they can't stop time, can't wipe the clock, the creative spirit can put up a good fight, push back against time -- at least to a draw. In later period songs like "Bandages and Scars," "No Turning Back" and "Roll On," all played last night, the pure fact of human will stands and delivers and sustains.
On stage, Farrar is the embodiment of that principle. Dressed in black, his dark hair falling over dark eyes that open and close like a drowsy feline, he's as exposed as he needs to be. He just sings, turning towards his guitar player but always keeping the course steady and on time, barely pausing between numbers. The words and rhythms rush out in a dizzying display of verbal dexterity. He doesn't take a guitar solo all night -- just on the harmonica -- his imagery being his solo instrument. He makes no attempt to win over the audience; he doesn't have to. He has presence, he has songs and he has a quiet strength that, if you're willing to just listen and take it in, can make all the difference.
Personal bias: Where to begin? I've been moved by Farrar's music, on stage and on record, for some twenty years; seeing him with Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt in the '90s got me out of graduate school seminars and into clubs. I don't plan to go back.
Overheard: Bobby Bare Jr. on stage: "If you're quiet, maybe we can hear the Australian Pink Floyd seep through the walls." The band was playing down the street at the Fox, leading to a chaotic parking situation in Grand Center.
Overheard: "I just rode up the elevator with two priests," Farrar said backstage before the show as a wedding took place upstairs. "What does that mean?" Bobby Bare Jr.: "You're dressed in black. Maybe they thought you were the groom."
Jay Farrar Setlist:
Down to the Wire
When the Wheels Don't Move
Highways and Cigarettes
Dust of Daylight
Hanging Blue Side
Strength and Doubt
Out of the Picture
No Turning Back
Hoping Machine (?) (lyrics by Woody Guthrie)
Tear Stained Eye
Bandages and Scars
Down the Highway (new song)
She's More to Be Pitied (Stanley Brothers)
Still Be Around
White Freight Liner Blues (Townes Van Zandt)