Perhaps it was because it was Labour Day weekend and people still hadn’t arrived back from holidays, or maybe they had spent all day at the Terminal City Block Party, or it could be they are just slow to accept the Mk II version of the band, but whatever the reason it was only a half-full Richard’s that greeted the new-look Son Volt on Labour Day.
Amid contractual disputes in late 2004, the original incarnation of the band fell apart, leaving Jay Farrar as the only survivor of the Son Volt that put out three albums of country-tinged rock in the ‘90s, from 1995’s Trace to1998’s Wide Swing Tremolo.
Touring in support of their first album of new material in seven years, Okemah and the Melody of Riot, Son Volt began the night with a brace of songs from that album, from the rollicking “Who” to the slower, more whimsical “Gramophone”, as well as the non-album track “Joe Citizen Blues”, which was so well-received, you had to wonder why they left it off in the first place. These first few songs were played with minimum fuss and little apparent enthusiasm from the band. Keyboardist Derrick DeBorja looked like a regular office-type conducting a regular day at the office, until the rolled-up sleeves on his shirt revealed a tattoo on his right forearm, while new guitarist Chris Frame looked like he would rather be anywhere but on stage, making Farrar’s assertion, “It’s good to be back” seem more than a little dubious.
But this was deceptive. Farrar has never been a charismatic frontman, preferring to let his songs do the talking. And slowly but surely the band warmed to the task, and the strength of the songwriting shone through, evident in new songs like “Bandages & Scars” and “Medication”, which featured slide dulcimer from Frame that sounded remarkably like a sitar. And even though they played the entire new album, there were also many older songs such as “Caryatid Easy”, “Medicine Hat”, and the only non Son Volt song, “Damn Shame” from Farrar’s solo album Sebastopol.
By the time the encore started, the band was more relaxed, allowing themselves the odd smile as they played a trio of songs from their debut album Trace—“Tear Stained Eye”, “Windfall”, “Drown”—before ending with the new single “Afterglow 61”. The final notes rang out nearly two hours and 26 songs after it all began, the audience members getting more than their money’s worth from a band that had quietly slipped into Vancouver, played one of the most impressive concerts of the year, and quietly slipped back out again.