Keeping it family-style, Colonel Ford, a local band featuring Farrar's brother, Dade, as well as Son Volt guitarist Gary Hunt, opened the show, turning the Pageant into a country barn dance with its mix of lap steel guitar, stand-up bass and fiddle. Rachel and Stephanie Stewart joined in on vocals for Hank Williams' classic "Your Cheatin' Heart" and Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky."
Son Volt took the Pageant stage just after 9 p.m. and began the opening chords of "Down to the Wire" from "American Central Dust" with Mark Spencer working the catchy keyboard hook. Throughout their two-hour set, the band provided a nice retrospective of its impressive catalog, driven by Farrar's poetic lyrics and haunting vocals. Also from "American Central Dust," "Dynamite" and "Dust of Daylight" featured Son Volt's signature alt-country twang, while "Strength and Doubt" tugged at the soul as Farrar belted achingly, "Nothing else matters" and Hunt tore up the stage with a stunning fiddle solo.
The often shy and reluctant Farrar seemed more talkative than usual, noting, "It's good to see so many familiar faces." You could sense his ease in being back home in St. Louis. One missing element, however, was regular Son Volt drummer Dave Bryson (Bryson is taking the summer tour off, as he is soon to be -- or may be by now -- a new father). Farrar introduced Jay Edwards on drums, and the former Avett Brothers' musician did a fine job anchoring the rhythm section along with bassist Andrew Duplantis. Kudos to the sound guy because the mix was absolutely perfect, allowing for crystal clear separation of each individual instrument and voice.
Son Volt focused quite a bit on material from the new album, which echoes the band's roots, from the sounds of its quintessential debut record "Trace" to the classic country and American folk music that influenced Uncle Tupelo and was instilled in Farrar at a young age by his musician father, Jim "Pops" Farrar.
Hunt's fiddle and Spencer's pedal steel (a sound straight from heaven) drove "Hearts and Minds," "Barricades," "Down the Highway," and the lovely "Seawall," with Farrar's chorus sweetly asking, "Do honky tonk angels still walk this ground?"
The pedal steel once again took precedence for the simply gorgeous "Highways & Cigarettes," a song that perfectly captures the heart of the Son Volt sound. Farrar then swapped his acoustic guitar for electric for "Hoping Machine," a tune off of "New Multitudes," his Woody Guthrie side project with Will Johnson, Anders Parker and Yim Yames, featuring Guthrie's lyrics set to music by Farrar. He paid tribute to Guthrie again later in the set with "Bandages and Scars," the opening track from "Okemah and the Melody of Riot," an album named for Guthrie's Oklahoma hometown.
"Trace" fans were not disappointed as Son Volt revisited its debut with a rockin' "Drown" (the band's only "hit" song), as well as "Tear-Stained Eye" and crowd-pleaser "Windfall." "Afterglow 61" provided another chance to crank things up. They closed out the show with an upbeat version of country classic, "Stop the World and Let Me Off."
Son Volt has gone through many incarnations over the years, with Farrar remaining its anchor and only original member. Though he's experienced a level of critical acclaim and respect, and has consistently put out solid studio efforts both with Son Volt and on his own, Farrar is not driven by money or fame. Rather, he's content being the humble and quietly introspective poet and songwriter -- ever honing his craft and never bowing to anyone else's vision of success. In his recently published memoir, "Falling Cars and Junkyard Dogs," Farrar writes, "How many times I've heard the expression 'could have been a star.' What's a star? Isn't 'being a star' subjective? Being an observer seems paramount to me, and anonymity is priceless."
His acute observations and ability to listen more than he talks is the very essence of Farrar's music. It's one of the reasons he's one of the most important figures in American music today. It's also what drives Son Volt's incredibly dedicated fan base to always gratefully take in whatever effort they put forth. Last night proved to be yet another solid performance by what may be St. Louis' favorite hometown band.