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January 31, 2006

High energy: Son Volt swaggers into town packing a great protest album

Enough ink has been spilled about Uncle Tupelo to fill an alt-country encyclopedia.

OK, OK, OK. The band has broken up. The fat broad has sung. The albums have all been released. Even the anthology. Go and buy them. Fawn, fawn away. Live in the past.

The music was, undoubtedly, a sound to behold, and Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar’s creative divorce was more thought-provoking than most people’s marriages.

But since then, no matter how hard Tupelo’s founders try to show audiences how much they’ve grown, jerks conceited enough to call themselves rock journalists keep revisiting the sordid past like the soap opera still holds any relevance.

Truthfully, Farrar’s not into nostalgia or sour grapes. Hell, it took him years to fully address Tupelo’s demise.

That’s because it has been, and always will be, about the music. Farrar’s into making records — Son Volt’s Trace, Straightaways and Wide Swing Tremolo, followed by three solo studio albums and a live record, Stone, Steel and Bright Lights — to name a few.

And late last year he graced us with the tightest set of protest music since Zack de la Rocha told Generation X to take back the power.
Okemah and the Melody of Riot, the latest Son Volt album in, well, a while, is half Farrar’s personal State of the Union, half homage to pioneer Woody Guthrie and the legendary folk singers who fought against injustice one song at a time.

Guthrie was a writer, soldier, musician and union organizer who once described his hometown of Okemah, Okla., as the “singiest, square-dancingest, drinkingest, yellingest, preachingest, walkingest, talkingest, laughingest, cryingest, shootingest, fist-fightingest, bleedingest, gamblingest, gun club and razor carryingest of our ranch towns and farm towns.”

Farrar was born in Belleville, Ill., in 1966, the year before Guthrie finally succumbed to Huntington’s chorea disease in a Queens hospital. Maybe the proximity of these events suggests a torch was passed from one generation to another: Farrar is continuing Guthrie’s ideological fistfight against the forces of oppression and evil.

“Bandages and Scars” leads off this pack of rabble-rousers, daring everyone to pretend the country is on the right track. Against a foundation that combines sweet vibrato and CCR ruckus, “Jet Pilot” chides W. for being an overprivileged rich kid: Jet Pilot for the day/washed his sins away/loves to see the Rangers play/Junior liked to let his hair down/Only trouble is, word gets around. It’s evocative, even though you’ve heard it shouted by protester upon protester a thousand times before.

On “Medication,” Farrar’s distinctive timbre — you can recognize his voice anywhere — and droning, Middle Eastern-ish guitar work make sense for a tune that derides America’s need to self-medicate its problems. As heavy as the album gets at times, Farrar manages to stray from politics, but just a little — “6 String Belief” is a manifesto for every kid who ever wanted to play rock ’n’ roll.

Which is the plan for this Saturday, when Farrar and the retooled Son Volt visit Headliners to help raise cash for WFPK-FM and its Sunday night show “Roots and Boots.”

It’s appropriate that he’ll be singing about corruption, greed and the need to search for a higher purpose, on the night before Super Bowl XL, America’s enduring and ever-growing monument to commercialism and corporate greed.

An overwhelming tribute, Okemah is Farrar living up to his own goals, sung beautifully on the album’s last track, “World Waits For You”: Find strength from the words/of those that went before/take what you need/but leave even more.

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Quickly, for an update on last week’s physical challenge that appeared on this page: I (sort of) confronted you, the faithful and attractive reader, to come up with the last time three or more Louisville bands released records on the same night, at the same show. Not that I didn’t believe it’d never been done before; I just didn’t remember or care to spend the time researching to find out. And predictably, I’ve been shown wrong. Or short on information. Or memory.

It’s happened at least twice in recent history. Shawn Severs apprised me of the Fifth Annual South End Show, which happened March 15, 2002, at the BRYCC House. Red Sun, The Lost, Three Nails for a False Prophet, Ayin and My Life Denial played the annual Noise Pollution Records shindig, which also saw the release of six CDs: the annual compilation featuring the bands that played, Blacklisted (Live: Screaming at the Walls), Noise Pollution (sampler Sensory Overload), The Fuse (Practice), Red Sun (Wired) and (Live in the South End).

A couple years prior, Chester, The Evolution of Music and Brass Tacks released albums on the same day, although the proprietor of all three, Kevin Kraus, couldn’t pin down the exact date.
If there’s more, let me know.

—Stephen George

Contact the writers at leo@leoweekly.com