Jay Farrar Spans Career in Acoustic Iron Horse Show

Jay-Farrar
Such is Jay Farrar’s preference for opacity that the veteran singer and songwriter makes a subtle lyric change in concert to his most revealing song — on the rare occasions when he performs it.One of those occasions was Wednesday night at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, where Farrar performed with backing from Gary Hunt on, alternately, guitar, mandolin, fiddle and steel guitar. The 80-minute set focused mostly on songs Farrar has recorded with post-2005 incarnations of his band Son Volt, along with a handful of selections from solo and side projects, and earlier tunes including a pair that he wrote with Uncle Tupelo in the early ’90s.

Never a chatty presence, the shy Farrar spoke sparingly to the audience, focusing instead on the songs. He opened with “The Picture” from Son Volt’s 2006 album “The Search,” replacing the jaunty horn parts with mournful harmonica to punctuate the ominous refrain, “We’ll know when we get there/ If we’ll find mercy.”

He translated several of the Bakersfield-style country tunes from last year’s Son Volt album “Honky Tonk” to duo form, with Hunt adding harmony vocals and guitar accents on the weary road song “Down the Highway” and sitting at the steel guitar for glimmers of accompaniment on “Seawall” as Farrar sang in his rumbling baritone.

Farrar tends not to sing tunes that others performed on albums he’s been a part of, so it was a surprise when he sang “California Zephyr” from “One Fast Move or I’m Gone,” his 2009 collaboration with Ben Gibbard on music inspired by Jack Kerouac’s novel “Big Sur.” Though Gibbard sang the tune on the album, the wistful melody was a more than agreeable fit with Farrar’s darker-hued vocals. The sense of yearning spilled over to “Hoping Machine,” from his “New Multitudes” project with Jim James, Centro-matic’s Will Johnson and Anders Parker on previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics. With eyes closed, Farrar lifted his voice up over eddies of electric guitar from Hunt.

The singer reached back to Son Volt’s second album, 1997’s “Straightaways,” for the easy-rolling “Back Into Your World.” “I dusted this one off,” he said in a rare aside to the crowd. He went even further back with Uncle Tupelo’s 1992 song “Grindstone,” a parable of frustration with social-justice overtones that became more prominent on the singer’s later work.

Farrar’s encore started with the two songs that are essentially command performances: “Tear Stained Eye” and “Windfall,” both from Son Volt’s 1995 debut, “Trace.” Then came the rarity, “Still Be Around,” from Uncle Tupelo’s second album, 1991’s “Still Feel Gone” (which has popped up in Farrar’s sets more frequently over the past few years). In the chorus on the album version, Farrar sings, “If I break in two will you put me back together?” Live Wednesday, he replaced “I” and “me” with “it,” deflecting attention on what amounts to a powerful evocation of longing. It was a subtle enough change onstage on a song that has over the years become less a cry of burning desperation than an evocation of cautious, but persistent, hope. Either way, it was a beautiful way close the show, underscoring two and a half decades of music that nearly always alludes to the depth of feeling in “Still Be Around” without ever laying it quite so bare.

Peter Bruntnell opened the show with a half-hour of subtle folk tunes balanced between wit and earnest emotion.

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