Son Volt Reach Back to 90s Era Songbook in Career-Spanning Portland, OR Performance (SHOW REVIEW)

Jay Farrar is a man of few words and fewer smiles, but he seemed to be in good spirits when he took the stage at Portland, Oregon’s Aladdin Theater on Friday, June 10th. Son Volt, the pioneering alt-country band he has fronted since 1994, released their 10th studio album Electro Melodier last year and Farrar was finally getting to support it on the road after numerous cancellations and rescheduling. Despite the gloomy weather in drenched Portland that hardly felt like summer, the fans who filled the Aladdin were also in good spirits to catch what might now be fairly classified as a legendary act.

Getting the festivities started was Jesse Farrar of bluegrass outfit Old Salt Union (and nephew of Jay Farrar), who played a mix of his Americana-leaning solo material interspersed with more complexing guitar picking. With his smoky vocals and heartfelt lyrics, Farrar won the crowd over with stories and songs, sealing the deal when he closed with a cover of Allison Kraus and Union Station’s “Rain Please Go Away” that felt all too appropriate given the weather.

Taking the stage to a soundtrack of marching drums and fifes, Jay Farrar and company wasted no time as they launched into “The Globe,” one of the more rocking tunes from Electro Melodier. The band leaned heavily into new tunes for the first half of the set, getting the crowd acquainted with songs like “Arkey Blue” and the twangy “Diamonds and Cigarettes” while also mixing in slightly older tunes like “The Picture” and “The Reason.” Though Son Volt has often mixed up their sound with each album, tapping into honky tonk and blues, the songs that made the setlist on this night seemed to track with the more straightforward alt-country fare that put the band on the map. Linking each song was a desire to keep the energy up with each tune, and following the hard-charging, organ-rich blues of “Sinking Down,” Farrar switched gears and turned the band’s focus to older material much to the satisfaction of many in the crowd.

Farrar has never been an artist who spends much time dwelling on his musical past, but in Portland he seemed enthusiastic about drawing from Son Volt’s 90s canon. As a result, songs like “Picking Up the Signal,” “Live Free,” and the timeless rock anthem of “Medicine Hat” all sounded more vital than they have in years. It helped that Farrar was backed by his incredibly tight band, including the newest addition of John Horton of the fellow Midwestern alt-country pioneers the Bottle Rockets. Horton would lend his sizzling guitar work to the stomping beat of “Driving the View” (with Mark Spencer also taking a nice solo on keyboard) and the always hard-hitting tune “Drown.”

Those fans who still fantasize about the possibility of an Uncle Tupelo reunion were given a couple of gems at the end of the set, with Farrar going back to his roots with the Uncle Tupelo-era cover of Doug Sahm’s country-rock classic “Give Back the Key to My Heart.” He would fully end the night with an especially potent “Chickamauga” off the band’s 1993 album Anodyne that left the audience beaming with a much-needed reminder of Farrar’s storied career and the timeless songs he has given us.

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