Son Volt has important ties to Minnesota. Their first album, 1995’s classic Trace, was recorded here. Two original members, Jim and Dave Boquist, are Minnesotans. They still play music around here occasionally, although not with Son Volt.
Needless to say, the band knows this area pretty well. They play a show here nearly every year. Although they played the Minnesota Zoo last year, their favorite local haunt is First Avenue, which is where they played their most recent show promoting their new album Union.
Union is a statement about the current political climate. Instead of being preachy and angry, Farrar takes a more contemplative approach, although the album is not devoid of vigor. He sets himself apart from normal “protest music” by focusing on the hearts and minds of people rather than transitory political issues.
The first 14 songs of the set were largely from Union. Although they are mostly mid-tempo and mellow, the passion of tracks like “Devil May Care,” “The 99,” and “The Reason” are only felt fully when heard live. Farrar’s voice was typically warm, but he put a little extra into lines like “ninety-nine percent/it’s a trickle-down world/like you’re stuck in cement” (“The 99”) and “privileged and the poor/every class and every color/together in spirit/building blocks of a nation” (“Union”).
The last half of the show featured Son Volt classics (“Drown,” “Windfall,” “Tear-Stained Eye,” “Route”), well-chosen deeper cuts (“Caryatid Easy,” “Driving the View”), and other tracks from their back catalog. Highlights included “Afterglow 61,” the rollicking single from their last protest album (2005’s Okemah and the Melody of Riot), and “Backs Against the Wall,” an affecting, meaningful song from their criminally undervalued 2017 album Notes of Blue.
I have two small quibbles with the set list.
One, he played no songs from Uncle Tupleo, the seminal alternative country band he was in with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. Farrar is probably one of those who doesn’t want to “live in the past,” but the past is always present, it’s always a part of who we are. It’s as important, or arguably more important, than the present. As William Faulkner says, “the past is never dead, it’s not even past.”
To ignore your past is to be a presentist, which has the same problems as people who actually just “live in the past”: they too stridently follow a dogmatic rule. Loving and appreciating your whole output, especially one as diverse and celebrated as Farrar’s, is good and healthy, and should be easy for him. I wish it was.
My second quibble is that there wasn’t as much variety as the last time he played First Ave in 2017. For that set, Farrar interspersed songs from his entire career all over the setlist, scattering the best tracks from almost all his releases throughout the show. The variety makes the listening experience more interesting.
But those are relatively minor issues. Minnesota is something of a second home for Son Volt, and I’m proud of that. Like their music, their shows are subtle and memorable. Their show lived up to the high standard that they set for themselves with their legendary debut album.