Although it was still daylight on a steamy Thursday afternoon when Son Volt walked out onto the Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard Stage at Summerfest, the country-inflected rockers played a set that felt as intimate as if it were in a dusky club.
The alt country outfit – one of two groups, along with Wilco, to emerge from the ashes of roots rock pioneers Uncle Tupelo – was playing what was by my reckoning, at least its third Summerfest show.
The first, on what is now the U.S. Cellular Stage, dates back to when the group’s debut, “Trace,” was still relatively new. The most recent I could recall was likely in 2009, as part of the tour for “American Central Dust,” under the roof of the Johnson Controls World Sound Stage.
While Setlist.fm doesn't acknowledge these shows, I was at them, even if the details are a little fuzzy by now.
On Thursday, the group’s 90-minute set included material from across the Son Volt’s nearly 30-year career, which was split into two phases hyphenated by a brief solo career by frontman and songwriter Jay Farrar.
While Son Volt played about half its most recent record – last year’s “Electro Melodier” – there was plenty of room for material from the first three records, which are my favorites: “Trace,” “Straightaways” and “Wide Swing Tremolo.”
These songs – when Farrar’s unique voice shone best in a setting that felt rooted in both trad country and early ‘70s rock like The Faces and the Stones at their rootsiest best (think “Exile On Main Street” and “Let It Bleed”) – unsurprisingly, were the highlights for me.
“Windfall,” “Live Free,” Route,” “Drown,” “Picking Up the Signal,” “Medicine Hat” and “Driving the View” represented this era, along with, of course, “Tear Stained Eye,” from the debut album. It’s, to my ears, easily one of the best songs written in the past 30 years. (Kasey Chambers' cover of it offers further evidence.)
The group also slotted in a few covers, like The Who’s “The Seeker,” Doug Sahm’s “Give Back the Key to My Heart” and Uncle Tupelo’s “Chickamauga,” if that can be considered a cover (Farrar wrote it).
Farrar wrung an impressive level of emotion from his dry, almost monotone voice and made the most of solid support from a band whose often-changing lineup currently includes bassist Andrew DuPlantis, drummer Mark Patterson, former Blood Oranges keyboardist and guitarist Mark Spencer and former Bottle Rockets guitarist John Horton.
Horton, especially, was a highlight, playing always tastefully and with the kind of apparent ease that suggests he was born with a guitar in his hands.
Here are some more great photos by Dan Garcia from Thurday’s performance and below those, you’ll find the set list.
Back Against the Wall
Diamonds And Cigarettes
World Waits for You
Picking Up the Signal
Bandages & Scars
Driving the View
Tear Stained Eye
Give Back the Key to My Heart
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.