Son Volt prove to be living masters on stage, Duquette Johnston emerges from his '90s cred as his own man

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Son Volt
Son Volt Photo by Mike Dunn

I don't know about you but Thanksgiving this year comes at a time when it seems like there's little to be thankful about. From the grapes of wrath growing around, it's pretty obvious a whole lot of us are feeling that. But we're wrong. Because there's you, and there's me, and here in this community we've got each other. We've learned a lot in the last year or so about who we are. It was painful, still is, truly a trial by fire. But it turns out we've become something to be proud of. While the world around burns in an inferno of nihilism, of ourselves we can be certain. We've proven it. So take a break of solace at that for a moment and then live to fight the big fight the day after. Thanks for you, Orlando.

Next week, TLU will be on pause. But the rock don't stop because it'll be our big annual local music issue. Prepare.


For a Kilimanjaro of reasons – heritage, quality, historical significance, a seeming chronic allergy to Orlando, etc. – Son Volt has been looming large on the calendar even among the usually bountiful offerings of the autumn concert season. The Jay Farrar vehicle, of course, is the lesser-known tine of the fork in the road that was Uncle Tupelo, the most seminal alt-country act of the modern era.

Farrar's path may be the far overshadowed one, but there's a traditional purity about Son Volt that could never be claimed of the wander and bloat of Wilco. Since their inception over 20 years ago, Son Volt's music has essentially been die-cast and preserved in gorgeous amber, staying true to its roots all along. It's a living snapshot of the alt-country golden era of the '90s, one that endures as if the 21st century never happened. Regardless of what that says about progress, it is an undeniably beautiful place to be, one much closer to the original and definitive Uncle Tupelo aesthetic.

In concert – at last for us and after all these years for them – Son Volt were flawless, masters of their craft and domain. They played live with an assertiveness and brawn that wasn't always there, even in their recordings. It's a gutsy footing well-suited for the new swamp-thick blues currents of this year's album, Notes of Blue.

Regarding their latest, I think it's quite good. But given the size of Farrar's legend, hardly anyone will argue that it's prime-era Son Volt. Whatever diehards will feel about the blues edge in it (spoiler: It's legit), the album is a distinctly muscular outing. That's noteworthy for a band more than two decades into their career, and a great omen for their longevity.

On stage, Son Volt today are effortless perfection, a live unit that's in the kind of top form that doesn't even need to break a sweat to beam brilliance. They're true believers who are executing like a dream right now. After watching them, you'll never mistake the scrap of young try-hards for charm again. And though it may have been an eternity, they made it a performance worth the wait, coming out one last time, even after playing an encore, just to rip a tight cover of the Velvet Underground classic "What Goes On" before riding off into the ether of history again.

Speaking of history, Alabama opener Duquette Johnston, despite little name recognition, has a fairly notable one. He was an original member of Verbena, a Southern grunge band of some accomplishment and acclaim in the late '90s. Through that group, he's linked to another current name – Fat Possum artist A.A. Bondy – who was Verbena's frontman. Like Bondy's solo work, Johnston's own music is decidedly roots-hearted.

Live, his songs were rendered with an effective arrangement of two very atmospheric and detailed guitarists, he with his hollow body and his accompanist playing lead and pedal guitar. It's a setup that allowed his distinctive rawness to shine while granting adequate sonorousness for his moody but expansive music. Their interplay stretches Johnston's gruff, curious soul across long, lonely hills, making the songs occupy and cling like beautiful ghosts.

About The Author

Bao Le-Huu

Music columnist.
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