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Mom still cuts my hair: Jay Farrar of Son Volt.

Photo: Joe Putrock

Farrar Out

By Kirsten Ferguson

Son Volt

MASS MoCA, May 25

He’s a deep guy, Jay Farrar. As a songwriter, the Son Volt frontman—and occasional solo artist—trains his critical eye on the American cultural landscape, and the view from where he sits often isn’t that pretty. His America, seen more often than not through the windshield of a van traveling the nation’s highways, can be a bitter pill sometimes: one of soured Heartland dreams and past traditions disappearing under the crush of a soulless modernity.

But, the music is not quite as un-fun as it sounds. Son Volt’s set last Sunday evening at the mill-turned-contemporary-art-museum MASS MoCA kicked off with “The Picture,” a key track from the group’s fifth and most recent album, The Search. Propelled by jaunty horns on the album, but here played as a straight-up rocker capped by Farrar’s harmonica, the buoyant track was Son Volt at their best, with lyrics that rode Farrar’s very thin line between cynicism and hopefulness: “Heart of darkness facing a thousand bloodshot eyes/We’ll know when we get there, we’ll find mercy.”

Tables of families sat attentively along the sides of the room. The early-evening show started promptly at 8 PM with no opening act, and had the feel of a family outing: lots of multigenerational groups with kids and grandparents. There were fewer of the plaid-shirted Americana set that one would expect at a Son Volt show; maybe the holiday weekend had something to do with it.

Farrar, himself dressed in a short-sleeved cowboy shirt, continued the social criticism over the weeping pedal steel of bandmate Derry DeBorja on “Exurbia,” which captures the “nightmare dream” of lives spent shuffling between work, car, interstate and house. The track appears only on a deluxe version of The Search, whose songs populated much of the set, along with a handful from 2005’s Okemah and the Melody of Riot. Both albums were recorded with Son Volt’s current lineup—Farrar, DeBorja, drummer Dave Bryson, bassist Andrew DuPlantis and guitarist Brad Rice (replaced on this tour by Chris Masterson)—who represent a second incarnation of the group, Farrar having split with the band’s original lineup in 2004 before going solo for a spell.

Things got a little sleepy for a stretch—on older Son Volt track “Hanging Blue Side,” brand-new number “Big Sur” (recorded for an upcoming film about Jack Kerouac), and the sedate “Highways and Cigarettes”—before reviving with “Tear Stained Eye,” a welcome beauty from Son Volt’s great first album, Trace. The latter gave an eager fan at the back something to dance to for the first time—albeit in an incongruous, interpretive fashion—as did a near-unrecognizable version of “Voodoo Candle.” (“Is he saying ‘blue camel’?” my friend asked.)

A man of little chatter, Farrar bid the crowd goodbye during the encore, which offered up a Marrakesh-inflected psychedelic vibe on “Medication,” another older classic in “Windfall,” and an old Waylon Jennings tune, “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?,” previously recorded by Farrar’s seminal first band, Uncle Tupelo.

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