Son of Tupelo
"Wilco sounds like Wilco, but Son Volt sounds like Uncle Tupelo." So said a member of Wilco before their astonishing show at the Sons of Hermann Hall on November 18, and he didn't mean it as an insult or even a boast, just as a declaration of the obvious. It's often said among Tupelo devotees that when that band broke up a couple of years ago, sending old friends (and now feuding ex-partners) Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy into Son Volt and Wilco respectively, two great bands sprang from one. But what's rarely mentioned is how different those two great bands ended up sounding--as different as dark and light, as dissimilar as a smile and a tear.

Wilco, which released A.M. several months before Son Volt debuted Trace, is the pop-rock band Uncle Tupelo never could be with the Appalachian folk-song-loving Farrar; forget the Gram Parsons comparisons, which apply tenfold to the Jayhawks and Son Volt, and think of Paul Westerberg and the Replacements folding classic-rock (Rolling Stones) and punk (The Clash) into a mixture lightly seasoned with country and folk. In Wilco, Max Johnston's dobro and fiddle and mandolin fills are just that--a texture in the background--whereas Son Volter Dave Boquist's use of the same instruments is there to define the music. Wilco's a pop-rock band that no longer pretends it's country, and Son Volt is a country band that insists on playing rock and roll.

And when Tweedy steps up to the mike, he sings with a grin about mooching a ride from a friend till the judge gives his license back, going through a box full of old love letters, sifting through the albums she wants back, trying unsuccessfully to meet his favorite singer backstage after a show--the sort of basic life shit everyone talks about, thinks about, understands. Farrar, though, doesn't make it so easy. He's a lover of abstracts instead of concretes: Where Tweedy might tell you the wind's blowing, Farrar's far more concerned with how it actually feels as it blows across your face and sweeps the dust into your eyes.

Farrar, who grew up in a family of musicians and once worked behind the counter in a bookstore, writes of landscapes and deserted towns like a man recounting over the pay phone what he sees as he drives back and forth down the two-lane lonesome. And it's appropriate, since much of Trace was written during long interstate travels between New Orleans and Minneapolis as he listened to AM radio stations belch out "old country and truck-driving songs," as Farrar told the Observer a few months ago. He sings of walking along the "Delta mud," finding salvation in neon signs, "soaking up billboard signs," driving across the county line ("where news travels slower than a 10-second buzz") because there's nothing better to do. "Day by day disappears," Farrar drawls, croaking his words as though bored or dead.

Son Volt performs November 30 at the Sons of Hermann Hall.

--Robert Wilonsky

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky