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12 November 2015

Son Volt’s Trace

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The reissue of Son Volt’s classic first album includes a Bottom Line show that I attended on February 12th, 1996. I went to The Bottom Line a lot in those days, in part because I lived around the corner at Bleecker and MacDougal, but more because Allan Pepper presented the acts I was learning from: singer/songwriters like Townes Van Zant, Guy Clark, James McMurtry, Steve Forbert, Steve Earle, Ferron, Bill Morrissey, and Greg Brown. I saw all those acts and many more at The Bottom Line, but loud, electric bands were a rarity. What’s more, Son Volt played only one show that night, though the venue always required artists to perform two shows.

As I listened to that show – which was, by the way, incendiary – I recalled another Son Volt show I saw during their early days. In fact, this one happened before Trace came out, and would have been the first time most of us heard Windfall, Tear-Stained Eye, Drown, etc. It was a CMJ show at Brownie’s on August 7th, 1995. I have two vivid but not-very-interesting memories of that CMJ show. First, a member of the audience called out for Tear-Stained Eye at the exact right time, prompting Jay Farrar to actually say something other than “thank you” on stage: “Did you have the set list in advance?” More importantly, I remember running out of cash. I know, this shouldn’t have been a problem. But my friend James and I were young, and either didn’t have credit cards, or were afraid to use them. And, we couldn’t go to the ATM, because we had great seats at the bar during a long show in a crowded room AND there was a huge line outside. I think we had enough money for one more round, but not enough to leave a tip. We considered leaving movie passes, which we’d purchased at a discount through some program at our place of employment, but decided that was too ridiculous/embarrassing. In the end, we conferred with the bartender, who understood – sort of – and was doing pretty well that night anyway. I still owe that guy $2.

It was exciting to see those early Son Volt shows, in part because the music was so good, but also because of the Son Volt vs. Wilco debate. As everyone knows, those two bands grew out of Uncle Tupelo who – along with The Jayhawks, The Bottle Rockets, and a few others – at least embodied but possibly invented “alt country” with its Americana themes and acoustic/electric blend.

I jumped on the Uncle Tupelo bandwagon in 1991-1992, when my college roommate returned from some vacation or other with three new CDs: Bird Brain by Buffalo Tom, Joyrides for Shut-Ins by The Cavedogs, and Still Feel Gone by Uncle Tupelo. Every one of those albums is great – I still listen to them – but it was Still Feel Gone that knocked me over the head. Gun, Still Be Around, D. Boon, True to Life…the soundtrack to my senior year. I only caught one Uncle Tupelo show, at Tramp’s in NYC on December 9th, 1993.

At first, there was broad consensus that Son Volt was better than Wilco. Wilco’s album, A.M., came out first and had some good songs – Box Full of Letters, Passenger Side – but didn’t hold a candle to Trace. There’s no debate on this subject; I’ve even read an interview with Jeff Tweedy when he admits as much. Come to think of it, he acknowledged Trace’s awesomeness just a few weeks ago:

Son Volt’s next two albums – the last featuring the original lineup with the Boquist brothers and Uncle Tupelo drummer Mike Heidorn – were good but same-y. Wilco, meanwhile, turned it up a notch behind the Tweedy/Jay Bennett collaboration and became, according to Rolling Stone, “one of rock’s most consistently interesting bands” and “America’s foremost rock impressionists.”

I won’t weigh in on the subject, except to say that I think Trace is the best album either of those groups has ever made. Is it better than the best Uncle Tupelo album? It hurts my head to even consider…

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