There’s something about Jay Farrar’s voice that’s rough-hewn yet comforting, like a slightly scratchy sweater that you’ve had for years but still never fails to ward off chills. And while his vocal range hasn’t changed, physically he’s pulling some Dorian Gray shit and looks pretty much exactly the way he did a decade ago. Musically, he’s not strayed too far from where he started either, though not with the same high points or consistency.
That said, this year’s Notes Of Blue is a pretty solid collection of songs that ultimately doesn’t stick around too long. “Cherokee St.” is a foot-stomper and set the tone for the evening, and “Lost Souls” had the right amount of grit, punctuated by some nasty slide work courtesy of Chris Frame. However, the crowd energy picked up notably when classics like “Catching On” and “Tear Stained Eye” were played, and this phenomenon would further play out as the set ended with more songs from the incredible debut record Trace; “Route” in particular, but “Drown” was no slouch itself (though the cowbell didn’t age well).
And then the Uncle Tupelo covers came. That’s the problem when your first record, despite fine subsequent efforts, is the de facto fan favorite, and the band you used to play in decades ago is still in their heavy rotation. Kudos to Farrar for recognizing great material when he writes it, though, and unlike his ex-bandmate a handful of Uncle Tupelo songs usually get played. “Chickamauga” remains a both fists in the air pounder of a song, with great lyrics (“Fighting fire with unlit matches”) paired with some impressive Shakey-like guitar work. In fact, this was about the song all night where Jay wailed on his Gretsch, letting Frame do the heavy lifting for most of it. They ended with a virgin performance of the Stones’ “Happy,” Farrar apologizing in advance if they screwed up any of the parts. Nope, they nailed it, and the packed room left the venue, happy that they braved the early April thunderstorms that rolled in during the early evening.
Anders Parker has a history with Farrar, stretching all the way back to a split single that his band Varnaline shared with Farrar back in 2001, but more notably as part of the New Multitudes project. Jim James and Will Johnson completed the quartet, who did their own take on the Mermaid Avenue idea that Wilco and and Billy Bragg started, using unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics and fashioning songs around them. Tonight Parker would be alone with just his acoustic guitar, playing some warm and pleasing songs that ended with “Doornail,” a muscular fret workout that would not be out of place on a Sir Richard Bishop record.