Jay Farrar smiled. I'm not joking; he really did.
In the middle of Son Volt's remarkably engaging performance Saturday night at the Sons of Hermann Hall, the notoriously impassive Farrar grinned like a kid getting his first kiss.
And why shouldn't Farrar smile? Honky Tonk, the recent effort from Son Volt, is the best thing the band has done in a decade and Farrar's new memoir, Falling Cars and Junkyard Dogs, has also been well-received.
But what had to making Farrar smile on this particular evening was the reaction of the sold-out crowd. Whether old or new, deep cut or familiar favorite, each song was greeted with wild enthusiasm. Even when the size of the crowd produced the inevitable hot and sticky conditions inside the venue, both band and audience kept the mood upbeat.
Although the set list concentrated on Son Volt's last couple of albums, Farrar and crew didn't seem to mind hitting that back catalogue with great results. Highlights included "Voodoo Candle" and "Barstow" (both from Farrar's 2001 solo album Sebastopol). During the latter, the crowd let out a hearty "yeehaw" after the line "There's peace in the wilds of West Texas." Perhaps the best response came after the well worn material from Grace, Son Volt's debut from way back in 1995. Singing along to "Tear Stained Eye" and "Drown," the surprisingly diverse audience gave the night (and the venue) the feel of an old school hoedown.
Farrar seems energized by working with this current collection of sidemen. New guitarist/fiddler Gary Hunt has added a more authentic country-vibe, especially to the new material. Songs like "Hearts and Minds" and "Brick Walls" were legitimate honky tonk weepers, not just some country standards attempted by a rock band.
As the clock headed towards midnight, Son Volt called it a night, leaving the crowd asking for more. After nearly two decades, Son Volt's music still captivates an audience. Farrar's songs, full of downtrodden imagery, still bridge the gap between the rural and urban experiences.
I've seen probably fifty shows at Sons of Hermann, but this was the first time that I felt the band was on par with the greatness of the venue.