Is it possible to discuss Jay Farrar, especially as he tours on the 20th anniversary of his Son Volt debut Trace, without mentioning Jeff Tweedy and Wilco? The fracture of Uncle Tupelo into two bands is the stuff of indie legend. One catapulted to become one of the premier rock bands of the past three decades while the other more or less spun its wheels, putting out similar albums with diminishing returns. While Tweedy and Wilco are selling out amphitheaters, Farrar and Son Volt attract smaller audiences at smaller venues. Part of it is stage presence. Tweedy is a personable frontman who enjoys interacting with his fans. Farrar does none of that. I saw Son Volt once on a New Year’s Eve. At the stroke of midnight, the band walked off the stage. Then they came back, without a word, and performed a pretty perfunctory version of “Born to be Wild.”

Farrar does have one thing on Tweedy, if we’re comparing (and it’s human nature to do that, so give me a break). Trace blows Wilco’s debut, A.M., out of the water. Sure, “I Must Be High” and “Passenger Side” are great songs, but none of them sound as lived-in or emotionally deep as the material found on Trace, which makes Son Volt’s subsequent nosedive all the more frustrating.

In front of a sold-out crowd at Portland’s Aladdin Theater, Farrar performed Trace in its entirety, albeit not in the album’s running order. Backed by multi-instrumentalist Gary Hunt and Eric Heywood on pedal steel, Farrar performed stripped-down, yet equally strong, versions of the songs, proving their power 20 years on. Beginning the show with “Tear-Stained Eye,” Farrar calmed some of the more fiery rockers such as “Drown” and “Route,” focusing more on the melodies here rather than the original Neil Young-aping guitar licks.

Farrar quipped that this was the biggest crowd he had seen so far on the tour, but beyond that he kept quiet. Tweedy would have likely talked about farting or shitting his pants. There is something mysterious about the quiet frontman, but it also would have been nice to hear some stories about the songs. What’s the point of these anniversary concerts if not to celebrate the records? There is no reason not to talk, especially if you’re not doing a straight reading.

Then there is the awkward moment of deciding what to play after the celebrated album is done. Farrar played for more than 100 minutes, moving to other Son Volt songs after finishing the Trace portion with a gorgeous version of “Windfall.” And while there were some stirring moments in the second half of the set, the drop-off in quality was stark. People began to leave. Also, closing your set with a slowed-down cover of “Rainy Women #12 & 35” feels pretty uninspired and like the antithesis of fun. I would like to think Farrar chose that one to celebrate the legalization of pot in Oregon, but a quick check of his recent setlists show him closing with that little number every night.

Twenty years later, I still reach for my copy of Trace. Even though I had seen Son Volt a few times back in the ‘90s, I am not sure I would feel the need to see them again. However, I am glad that Farrar lured me out to the theater to catch him playing the songs of Trace. I will be there for the 25th anniversary, if Farrar is game.

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