On the new album called Union from long-running alternative country act Son Volt, lead singer, songwriter, and band founder Jay Farrar has things to get off his chest. In the true spirit of folk music and restless troubadours like Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger, Union is a platform for Farrar to speak to the political churn that seems to dominate our news space more and more with each passing day. It bothers him immensely and as an artist, he felt a sense of obligation to raise people’s awareness and what better way than through music. The album is in the Ear Bliss spotlight this week along with the latest solo album from rock and roller Luther Russell. Russell was only 17 when he formed his first band called The Bootheels with Jakob Dylan, son of Bob Dylan. That was the mid-1980s. The demise of that band led to him forming his next one called The Freewheelers who had some short-lived major label success in the early-to-mid 1990s. Russell has been on a solo path since 1997 that has yielded six longplayers to date including his latest album called Medium Cool. To these ears, it is a ‘70s power pop throwback straight out of cult band Big Star lore. Let’s take a look.
Transmit Sound Records
On the band’s 10th album called Union, long-running alt country entity Son Volt delivers its most politically charged recording to date. “There are so many forces driving our country apart,” observes front man and band founder Jay Farrar. “What can we do to bring our society back together?” For Farrar, it was putting pen to paper and writing music. Initially intended to be an entirely political statement, the 13 original songs comprising Union in one part turned into material fueled by the political turbulence in our system offset in the other part by as Farrar explains, “new songs reflecting the endearing powers of love and music that keeps many of us going.” Farrar formed Son Volt in 1994 following the breakup of his previous band, Uncle Tupelo. As the times have evolved, so has Son Volt. The music of Union does not have quite the wallop of previous works, but what it lacks in jolt is more than made up for in the substance of Farrar’s songs attached to alluring melodies that stay in the head. The political side of his writing is on display immediately out of the gates with the one-two punch of lead-off songs “While Rome Burns” about how unsettled times can be our greatest unifier and “The 99” which speaks to the imbalance in this country when it comes to the haves and have nots, before the celebration of creation and art on “Devil May Care.” It’s an ebb and flow that continues throughout like the stunning poetry of “The Reason” with its radiant 12-string guitar and the hard-hitting closing track “The Symbol” which decries the deportation of hard-working immigrants and their U.S. born children. In the press release, Farrar talks of being raised on folk music. In the form of his songwriting and world-weary voice and exquisite playing of his Son Volt bandmates, true folk music is on display on Union. Recommended. Visit www.sonvolt.net.
Son Volt is scheduled to appear at the annual Rhythm & Roots Festival on Labor Day weekend at Ninigret Park in Charlestown. The band will appear on Friday night of the weekend.
Fluff n’ Gravy Records
From purely the sound and style perspectives, serious shades of ‘70s cult rockers Big Star and front man Alex Chilton are all over the album Medium Cool from long-time West coast rocker Luther Russell (of The Freewheelers fame). Considering Russell formed a band called Those Pretty Wrongs with Big Star drummer (and only surviving member) Jody Stephens that yielded an album in that spirit in 2016 for Burger Records, the Big Star “rub-off” is not all that surprising. Russell describes Medium Cool simply as ‘’a rough rock & roll album roughly about rock & roll.’’ There is no denying that, nor the influence of rockers such as the aforementioned Big Star, not to mention The Replacements. Frankly speaking, it’s refreshing as heck to hear blasts of unabashed power pop about everything from nostalgia for the rock and roll days (“The Sound of Rock & Roll” and “Have You Heard?”) to cars and cruising the strip in the summertime in search of who knows what (“Corvette Summer”). It’s just not being done all that much when it comes to recorded music these days. With Medium Cool, Russell offers up a righteous and irresistible dollop of salvation for both himself and R&R saviors to get their ya-ya’s out. Visit www.fluffandgravy.com.
Triple threat weekend at Chan’s Restaurant in Woonsocket (267 Main Street). It kicks off Thursday night with award-winning Texas guitar slinger Mike Zito with special guest the Jeremiah Johnson Band playing a single show at 8 pm. The following evening, Friday, local heroes the Delta Generators will be in the house of eggrolls and blues, also at 8. The weekend closes out on Saturday evening when Ocean State stalwarts Roomful of Blues roll into the joint for your listening and dancing pleasure starting at 8 pm.
Featuring young musicians and singers from Sweden, United Kingdom, and the U.S., the 7-piece Abbarama is a live band and video production of Abba like no other. The performance group makes tracks for the Greenwich Odeum (59 Main Street) on Friday night for an 8 pm show. Call ahead for ticket availability.
The Blackstone River Theatre in Cumberland (549 Broad Street) closes out its spring season this weekend with what promises to be two terrific evenings of music. On Saturday night at 8 pm, the Irish folk singer Karan Casey and her band return for an evening of contemporary and traditional material. Much of it will no doubt come from her excellent new album “Hieroglyphs That Tell the Tale.” On Sunday night, Boston-based quartet Darlingside brings its impeccable harmonies to the venue for a special early evening 6 pm performance.
Duke Robillard & His All-Star Band celebrate the release of his new recording called “Ear Worms” with an album release show at the Met Café in Pawtucket (1005 Main Street) on Sunday evening. The album is a flash back to Duke’s pre-blues days on which he pays homage to the likes of Brenda Lee, Chuck Berry, Arthur Alexander and guitar pioneers Link Wray and Duane Eddy, among others. Some of the featured vocalists in his “all-star band” that evening will be Chris Cote, Sunny Crownover, Mark Cutler, and Dave Howard. Doors are at 6 pm and music starts at 7.
You really can’t wrong when Mike Boulay & Hope Valley Volunteers do their monthly pickin’ and grinnin’ thing for your eatin’ and drinkin’ pleasure at the Wood River Inn in Richmond (1193 Main Street) on the third Sunday of each month. That happens to be this Sunday at 6 pm and it’s free, too!
Dan Ferguson is a free-lance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance, broadcast Thursday nights from 6 – 9 pm on WRIU-FM 90.3.