Bass player Andrew Duplantis has been a member of Son Volt since Jay Farrar unveiled the revamped version in 2005, but remarkably this was the first time the band has been to Madison since then. I was excited since I’ve known Duplantis for years, first meeting him as part of the Fighting Cocks who back Jon Dee Graham, and his addition rekindled my interest in a band I had given up on. The first incarnation played Madison many times, and while I wasn’t at their legendary every-code-violating show at O’Cayz Corral I had seen them many times at the Barrymore. I mostly found them sleepy, even verging on boring, though Richard Buckner did open one of those shows, reminding me what boring really is. With Duplantis in the band I had a new reason to go see them. The new band seems to have had the same effect on Farrar, who certainly seems to be enjoying himself onstage. His banter is still essentially non-existent, but he does smile now.
Parallels to Wilco have been inevitable ever since Uncle Tupelo split and Jeff Tweedy went on to form Wilco while Farrar started Son Volt. Early on it seemed Son Volt would win this race when first release Trace spawned several hits, many of which still show up in the live show, but Wilco was a late bloomer releasing their best work on its third and fourth records. While Wilco is enjoying massive popularity currently, in my opinion Farrar gets the last laugh. Recent Wilco is worse than boring, it’s bad. The years have taken their toll on Tweedy, but Farrar looks like he might have a portrait in the attic that is growing older since he certainly isn’t.
They moved from song to song with little pause. There were lots of new songs and I didn’t know most of them. Some songs sounded familiar as being from the previous release American Central Dust which was my default CD when I’d be in lab on the weekend. It all sounded nice, and if I got bored I would watch Andrew play bass or Mark Spencer play pedal steel. I missed drummer Dave Bryson, out on paternity leave, who I’d gotten to know when he toured with Chris Mills, but the kid taking his place did just fine. The huge fans in the sold-out crowd probably don’t ever need to hear the songs from Trace that have been a part of every live show since 1996, but the rest of us went nuts for the pretty “Tear Stained Eye,” rocker “Drown,” and the best of the bunch, the majestic “Windfall.”
“We’re going to leave the Honky Tonk now,” Farrar claimed halfway through their set. It wasn’t just them; the Honky Tonk had actually started with opening band Colonel Ford, which in this incarnation turned out to be Son Volt minus Farrar. Current Son Volt lead guitarist Gary Hunt fronts the St Louis band, so they made for a very economical opener. Hunt, who normally shares the lead with Farrar’s brother Dade, didn’t have to do all the work tonight, Duplantis, Spencer and special guest half-time Madisonian Freedy Johnston all took a turn or two on lead vocals. Johnston took the stage for a spirited version of “Stop the World and Let Me Off.” It was a much more entertaining opening act than the sleepy Sera Cahoone who had opened in Milwaukee, and it put the crowd in a drinking mood. I was definitely glad I biked.