Jay Farrar is the gold standard (as his win for Best Singer/Songwriter in this issue's Music Awards attests): a singer-songwriter of the first house, an artist who needs little more than his guitar and your undivided attention to make his point. While this makes Farrar all the more "real" as an artist, it also makes him easy to ignore, to take for granted. We want excitement, gimmickry and intrigue from our heroes, and Farrar admirably refuses all three.
With Stone, Steel & Bright Lights, Farrar has collected live recordings from last year's tour, some performed solo but most aided by the five-piece Canyon. These solo, acoustic songs are faithful to the originals, though the live context reveals little about the songs. Farrar's unflagging stoicism may be part of the package, but it hardly makes him engaging to watch or hear perform live. Things pick up a bit with the addition of Canyon's dreamy, reverberating gauze; on "Make It Alright," Farrar is bolstered by the driving backbeat and is allowed to take flight over the beautiful haze. It's enlightening to hear Farrar work with this adventuresome, spectral quintet, and Canyon's contributions elicit Farrar's finest moments.
Stone, Steel & Bright Lights picks exclusively from Farrar's solo output (two albums and one EP), and while some of his best songs are contained here (the short, satisfying "Greenwich Time" and the rollicking "Damn Shame"), his myth-making work with Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt is left out. One can admire this "don't look back" approach, but it leaves this live album an incomplete picture of Farrar's impressive output. As it stands, Stone, Steel & Bright Lights is preaching to the converted for Farrar fans, though don't be surprised if Canyon gets a boost in sales.