Mississippi Nights, St. Louis, Nov. 24, 1996
By Roy Kasten
ST. LOUIS - The appearance of Son Volt and Big Sandy in St. Louis, brought together two remarkably different country sounds: one band playing resolutely traditional Texas swing; the other pushing their undefinable music to louder, harder, yet more melodic places than ever.
Big Sandy lumbered out just after 8 p.m, as the near sell-out crowd was still jockeying for space. Big Sandy has the sweet, twangy tone if not strength of Hank Thompson's voice.
And he leads the band, featuring stand-up bass, pedal steel, lead guitar and drums, with gentle, unpretentious hoops and hollers in true Bob Wills fashion.
What is so instantly admirable about this band, is the absence of nostalgia and retro pretension. They dress simply, with a cowboy hat here and there, and always emphasize tightness and lightness of touch, over showboating.
As their set unfolded the audience grew more attentive, till by the last two numbers, these urbanite St. Louisians, few of whom probably have even heard of Bob Wills, were completely seduced by Sandy.
By the time the band turned to "an old western swing song, we're gonna mangle," "Nancy Jane," the crowd, dancing and swaying, had forgotten they'd really come to see someone else. Even after an hour of music, the crowd coaxed the Flyright Boys out for a quick encore, Bill Haley's "Rock This Joint."
It's appropriate that Son Volt should play St. Louis just before Thanksgiving, as band leader Jay Farrer and long time percussive companion Mike Heidorn, hail from Belleville, Ill., just across the river.
Bathed in purple light and holding a scratched, black Telecaster low at the hip, Farrer strummed the opening chords to "Catching On," the best of the rock tunes on "Trace," and a fine inauguration to Son Volt's live aesthetic: breathless, driven, and furiously catchy.
The song also showed how much the band has learned in the past year. They've found a cleaner sound in their guitar and amps (the Vox seemed new), and their harmonies are clear, even lovely.
Almost every song featured the accompaniment of bass player Jim Boquist, whose voice is more even than Farrer's tough moan. That greater concentration on vocals means Farrer plays fewer leads, but the trade off is worth it.
The key to the band remains Mike Heidorn. His drumming, once as frenetic and frightening as Keith Moon in a china store, has grown more precise without losing his sweat ethic. He'll reach out and silence the cymbals perfectly when the tempo shifts and instinctively punctuate every chord blast.
During "Tear-Stained Eye," Heidorn, in an unprecedented move, climbed down from the drums shaking a tambourine, and harmonized on the chorus.
The band played four new songs, which continue Farrer's penchance for crystalline, dark images; but they're never depressing because his language is so surprising and stunning.
A few also combine his oblique but cutting social critique: "No one here says what they mean," he sings during "Cemetery Savior."
Another new song captures the whole of '90's politics: "We know what is real now. Let the judges meet their makers....Don't leave here without speaking your mind."
And they still love spontaneity. For their final, surprise encore, the band brought Brian Henneman of the Bottlerockets on stage, to play lead on "Love's Gonna Live Here." But before that, at the end of the first encore, they coupled Waylon Jennings' "Too Many Good Times" and Alex Chilton's scary, beautiful "Holocaust." The connection? Both songs are about the loss of a woman's soul -the first to honky-tonk, the second to despair itself.
Better than any other insurgent band, Son Volt forces a difficult reckoning between the hard-edged rock and a classic country. They don't really mix the genres, so much as contrast them. How do the pedal steel and fiddle, played so lovingly and clearly on songs like "Windfall," balance with the Uncle Tupelo scream of "Chickamauga"? (During that finale, Farrer grabbed the mike stand and used it as a slide on his Les Paul.)
Perhaps it's just their gift for melody, or the mastery with which they shift between acoustic and electric moods. Or perhaps it's Jay Farrer's singular presence - commanding, intense, but completely in love with the force of music - that makes it all work.
Set List for Big Sandy:
This Could be the Night
Gonna Have a Ball Tonight
Let Me in Baby
Music to My Ears
Sixteen Cats (No Room to Rock)
Too Late to Be True
Jump Up '66
To Have and Hold
My Cheatin' Days Are Over
Rock this Joint
Son Volt Set List:
Cemetery Savior (new)
Live Free or Die
True to Life
Slow Fade (new)
Out of the Picture
Memphis to New Orleans (new)
10 Second News
Too Many Good Times (Jennings)
Looking At the World Through a Windshield (Chesnutt/Hoyer)
Love's Gonna Live Here (Owens)