Son Volt, energized

Jay Farrar and his reassembled band evoke Woody Guthrie with a `Melody of Riot'



HE WANTED TO GO HOME, so to speak.

After seven years of highly experimental solo work, singer-songwriter-musician Jay Farrar decided to reassemble his critically acclaimed alternative country-rock band, Son Volt. On the new album, Okemah and the Melody of Riot, he reminds fans of the band's past glory while showcasing progressive musical and lyrical ideas. The CD appeared in July and garnered enthusiastically positive reviews. "The right mix of pastoral beauty and bar-band swagger," Rolling Stone said. "From the first track, `Bandages & Scars,' a beautiful, warm, tube-amplifier sound asserts itself," wrote The New York Times.

"We tried to capture a vibe and not try to correct everything," says Farrar, who's calling from a rehearsal in St. Louis. Son Volt plays Sonar Lounge on Tuesday night. "We tried to keep things at a fundamental effort, similar to what we do live."

Indeed the album, the band's first since 1998's Wide Swing Tremolo, retains a vibrant, organic feel and is perhaps the most inspired Son Volt set since 1993's Anodyne. Farrar is the only holdover from the original lineup. But it's no secret that he has always been the band's guiding force -- writing, producing and singing the songs. The current incarnation of the band includes guitarist Brad Rice, bassist Andrew Duplantis and drummer Dave Bryson.

"Solo recording meant that I could try anything," says Farrar, who released four diversified solo albums, including a live set, between 2001 and last year. "I experimented with different instruments and tape loops, more of an acoustic thing. But I missed the collective situation. That can spark spontaneity in recording. There's a synergy that's there. You hope it's there."

Part of the new album's title, Okemah, refers to the Oklahoma town where Woody Guthrie, one of Farrar's musical heroes, was born. In the spirit of the celebrated songwriter, the Belleville, Ill., native crafts "melodies of riot," songs that challenge social and political ills while offering hope.

"I was exposed to his music early on," Farrar says of Guthrie. "I was using him as a point of reference for my writing. He was always a topical writer. I try to be."

While still enigmatic at times, the artist's writing has evolved nicely over the years, becoming more sharp and focused. The best tunes on Okemah include the meditative "Atmosphere" and the wise "World Waits for You," which features the lines: "Find strength from the words/Of those that went before/Take what you need/But leave even more." About writing, Farrar says, "I take it seriously now. I do it late at night. I have two kids (a boy and a girl, ages 6 and 3), so that broadens my perspective on a lot of things."

In putting Son Volt back together, he wanted to amp up the band's roots-rock sound without sacrificing the warmth that snagged them so many fans and critical nods in the '90s. Before recording Okemah, Farrar immersed himself in vintage blues 78s: early B.B. King and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown.

"I try to listen to old blues the way people used to hear it," Farrar says.

But in translating that rugged, down-home feel, he prefers to feed off the energy of his sympathetic band mates. The music crackles with life on stage.

"It's always good to get into extensive touring to learn to play new songs and the old ones," Farrar says. "Each player brings his own background to the mix, which is always interesting. It's good to return to that group dynamic."

See Son Volt at Sonar Lounge, 407 E. Saratoga St., Tuesday night at 8. Tickets are $20 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting

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