How many times did I see the Son Volt Trace tour in 1995 and 1996?! Probably five or six times…some of the most memorable shows of my young life.
And in 2023, after eleven studio albums, Son Volt announced an anniversary tour for 1995’s Trace (the completely logical 28th anniversary). It would land them in Salt Lake City on September 27. While they were also performing from their excellent Day of the Doug tribute to Doug Sahm…let’s be honest, we were there to hear Trace.
I recommend the Sahm record highly. Here is “Sometimes You’ve Got to Stop Chasing Rainbows” from Day of the Doug. You can buy it at Son Volt’s website.
Brief and wildly oversimplified history of alt country
Gram Parsons of The Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers introduced the world to Cosmic American music in 1973. Fast forward to 1990, Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy are credited with some hyperbole for “creating” alt country with Uncle Tupelo’s 1990 No Depression.
But it was Farrar and Son Volt, five years later, who vaulted past Wilco as the pioneers that turned alt country into a movement. 1995’s Trace changed the way country music was received by mass indie music listeners. They could connect their sound as much to Bob Mould as Woody Guthrie.
At this time I was living in the adopted alt country capital of the world, Columbia, Missouri. Columbia and Mizzou college radio station KCOU were the closest viral crowd for Belleville, Illinois’ groundbreaking Uncle Tupelo. Columbia “made” Uncle Tupelo, if you listened to the locals. Wilco and Son Volt followed the same path to success, playing for the MU kids at the legendary Blue Note club.
What a time to be alive.
It’s been almost 30 years since those heydays. In that time, I took three different jobs, got married, moved around the country, September 11 and Donald Trump happened.
So yes, the Son Volt Trace reunion performance was something of a Dad Rock moment. I was grateful it was lightly-attended at Salt Lake City’s State Room. The Doug Sahm covers were gorgeous, near perfection. But when Farrar lead into “Windfall,” it was the nearest to tears I’ve felt in a long time.
Jay Farrar plays Trace front to back; Horton kills
It was remarkable watching how Farrar, 56, paced the show in Salt Lake City. The Doug Sahm and first Trace songs, “Windfall” and “Live Free” had a determined but casual pace. As successive songs passed, though, the road crew passed guitars to Farrar with increasing speed.
Time between songs compressed and the show grew in intensity.
Although “Ten Second News” represents a downbeat cut from Trace, in the live setting of 2023, it turns into a dark, brawling thing that turned the venue upside down. At times John Horton (former of The Bottle Rockets) was channeling the Allman Brothers. At other times he could have been playing with Sonic Youth. They completely wrecked the joint and it was an awesome sight.
The emotional crescendo of “Ten Second News” then immediately lead into Volt’s guitar rock favorite, “Drown.” It was a 45-minute tour through alternative country history, concluding with Farrar’s touching interpretation of Trace closer “Mystifies Me.”
Farrar then played a few hand-selected songs from Son Volt’s 30-year cannon: “Picking Up the Signal” from 1997’s underappreciated Straightaways, songs from Wide Swing Tremolo, Notes of Blue and Electro Melodier. They covered Tom Petty’s “American Girl” and wrapped with “Chickamauga.”
Current and past Son Volt fans couldn’t have asked for more.