Jay Farrar :: 1.22.05 :: Mystic Theatre :: Petaluma, CA

"The words of Woody Guthrie ring in my head."

Jay Farrar
It was a few songs into his set when Jay Farrar let this one slip. There's no doubt Guthrie's ghost was present on this bone-cold California winter night, his dustbowl spirit hung in the silver notes and quiet observations that warmed us from the inside.

Ever since the demise of his seminal alternative country band, Uncle Tupelo, Farrar has channeled more than a little of Guthrie's blue collar, hard-won-hope, tales-of-the-road energy. Even his rock band guise Son Volt often feels like he's found an electrical socket in the "Pastures of Plenty." Both men mingle a child's eye with an adult heart, trying to see the good in the world even if their own living has shown them it ain't always out there.

Standing stageside with a mass of beer-guzzling, chatty locals, I tuned out the human clutter and let this music seep into me. That's how Farrar's music works best - a slow acclimation. As much as I've enjoyed and admired his earlier work, it's been his past two solo releases, especially 2003's Terroir Blues, which have revealed a craftsman akin to Guthrie or early Van Morrison, creating music to stand the test of time because it speaks to things that don't fade away. By himself or with incredibly intuitive accompanist Mark Spencer (Blood Oranges, Lisa Loeb), Farrar exhibited an undisguised yearning for something real, a sharp beak that pecks down beyond the surface into the true meat.

Jay Farrar by Meri Simon
After a particularly stirring reading of "No Rolling Back," a beautiful modern hymn to hope's slow crawl forward, a bandana-wearing, gray-bearded, faded flower child piped up to his buddy, "Nice message but not particularly festive." As they laughed and hooted for more lively Saturday night music, I just shook my head, sighed, and turned away.

The growing inability of people to gather in public spaces to actually listen to what a musician is laying down never ceases to bruise my spirit. The constant need to be entertained short circuits what should be a genuine exchange between performer and listener. Like many singer-songwriters, I'm sure Farrar wishes Americans could be attentive like European and Japanese audiences, but this is the land where folks are taught to "have it their way" every day. If there was one fly in the ointment at the Mystic Theatre, it was the noisy hubbub of small talk that permeated every moment. It's baffling to me why someone would spend time and money to come out and then waste it by yammering away while the music plays. It's more than a little disrespectful of the artists and everyone else who actually came to listen.

Jay Farrar by ND Koster
The pairing of Farrar's acoustic guitars and Spencer's lap steel and electric guitar echoed the delicate yet powerful work of Tim Buckley, especially his BBC sessions, where the merger of resonate slide and intricately picked acoustic strings sounded like birds dancing with the wind. Together, they created a sound that touched the high ceilings and reached every corner of the room. My companion called Nels Cline as a touchstone for Spencer's playing, and I heard more than a touch of Michael Timmins (Cowboy Junkies) - both of whom are pickers who know how to make a single note work on multiple levels. Spencer clearly adores Farrar's songs, harmonizing with a fan's gusto and finding fresh vistas in the melodies that go far beyond the studio versions. And when the two dipped into a taste or two of country stompin', their pleasure in playing together was deeply infectious. They clearly "get" each other, and that kind of rapport is a joy to behold.

Jay Farrar by Bob Reuter
"You're really not mad at anyone, you're just mad at the world." This line gave me a shiver because it spoke to the kind of anger many of us carry around, tucked away in a wooden box that rests just below our heart. And that, in a nutshell, is the core of Farrar's work. He explores hurt and hope and the reasons why they aren't doled out in equal portions. His verses try to make sense of daily life's confusion, puncture the cynicism that we wake up with, and try to wipe away like sleep from our eyes. Even his song titles reflect this dynamic, like the new one that will appear on the forthcoming Son Volt album he previewed called "Bandages With Scars."

In this pared-back setting, these truths become more self-evident, and it wasn't just Farrar who displayed this drive for realness. Opener Anders Parker (Varnaline), dressed in his workingman's Sunday best coat and wide tie, looking the spitting image of The Band's Garth Hudson, stood up for truth, too. Showing the same belly filling sturdiness as Kris Kristofferson and Glen Campbell, Parker worked the ebb-and-flow of the solo artist, the swoop of loud and soft that brings ears in like a tide, using humor in the song breaks to leaven the hard wheat in his lyrics. Only a cover of the too-familiar Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" fell flat for me, but it did speak to Parker being much more a "John" than a "Paul" in the metaphorical sense. Playing tunes from his first solo album, Tell It To The Dust, Parker showed an eye for unusual details, "watching the bones beneath your skin" as he introduced us to the "nurse within."

It is this inward journey in which these men are engaged - the autobiographical trek begun with St. Augustine and carried to today by Michel de Montaigne, Plutarch, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. That's a lot of weight to put on anyone's shoulders, and I don't mean to lay a heavy burden on Parker or Farrar, but this is the tradition they uphold. By focusing a lens on their own lives, their own fears and dreams, and then harnessing what they find into something we too can see, they help us. The underlying truths in their stories are the same ones in our own tales.

It can be thick, emotional stuff, and often it would be too heavy to take if it wasn't also flecked with a faith in a better future. Everything might not be alright, but it stands a chance of getting better. Both Farrar and Parker understand this and have a talent for convincing us of it, too. Faith is a funny thing. It never just appears, revealed in whole. It sneaks up on tiptoes, arriving when we least expect it, surprising us with the simple truth that goodness really does win out over evil in the end. For one night, we got some new marching tunes to carry us towards that realization.

Dennis Cook
JamBase | Bay Area
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[Published on: 1/27/05]

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