Son Volt, Notes of Blue
Every troubadour who likes to blend reverence for tradition with an insurgent streak owes a nod of respect to Jay Farrar—the prolific tunesmith credited with pioneering the alt-country movement in the late 80s with Jeff Tweedy in Uncle Tupelo. When the duo split, Tweedy evolved into an experimenter, using Wilco to keep folk and country on edge. Farrar, who formed Son Volt as his main outlet, has always stayed closer to the heart of the song, relying on his even-keel voice, earnest highway poetry, and the occasional blast of primal distortion.
Despite the tile, Notes of Blue, released in mid-February, isn’t a display of blatant genre revivalism. It instead stays true to Son Volt’s past output, mining parts of the past while never completely abandoning rock & roll. The opening “Promise the World” offers similar dusty redemption to “Windfall,” the lead track on the band’s 1995 debut album, Trace. The following “Back Against the Wall” is even sunnier, offering open-road optimism and anthemic guitar solos typical of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
As the album progresses, shades of the blues become clearer. Farrar gets into the troubled mindset of great hill country predecessors in “Static,” but he delivers lines like “we all go down before we’re ready” through a wash of amplified fuzz. Then in “The Storm” he looks for a way out of tumultuous times among gentle finger-picking and rustic slide solos. Much like he did on Son Volt’s 2013 album Honky Tonk and the 2005 homage to Woody Guthrie, Okemah and the Melody of Riot, Farrar taps into his influences in his own grounded, familiar way.
Appearing at the Visulite Theatre in Charlotte, N.C. on March 12; the Grey Eagle in Asheville, N.C. on March 14; the Bijou Theatre in Knoxville, Tenn., on March 15; and the Revelry Room in Chattanooga, Tenn., on March 16.
Dead Man Winter, Furnace
Dave Simonett is usually found fronting popular Minnesota punk-grass outfit Trampled by Turtles, but he recently put his main band on hiatus to release the second album under the solo alias Dead Man Winter. Furnace starkly documents Simonett’s recent divorce, candidly revealing the pain and guilt that come with the dissolution of a 10-year marriage. Album opener “This House Is On Fire” is a slow dirge about being trapped in the wrong relationship that finds Simonett’s lonesome, achy vocals being shadowed by raw electric guitar fills. While a similar theme runs through the record’s lyrics, Simonett doesn’t let the music wallow in melancholy. Rollicking roots rock tunes “Destroyer” and “Red Wing Blue Wing” cruise with lighthearted hooks, even as the singer laments leaving his kids with lines like, “I’m a disaster/I’m fading from your young life.”
To make the record, Simonett grabbed a Trampled bandmate, bassist Tim Saxhaug, along with stalwart buddies from the Minnesota rock scene, and holed up for a week at Pachyderm Studio, where Nirvana made “In Utero.” The compact session yielded spontaneous, freewheeling energy that runs through the entire record but is best heard in “You Are Out of Control,” which starts as a haunting acoustic ballad before spiraling into an intense seven-minute garage jam. It’s a fine example of music being used as cathartic release.
Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors, Souvenir
Few voices in modern Americana provide a peaceful easy feeling like Drew Holcomb’s. The hard-working independent singer-songwriter has been touring relentlessly for the past decade-plus and has released a handful of records on his own label. A Tennessee native—born in Memphis, schooled in Knoxville, and based in Nashville—Holcomb is more everyman than outlaw, consistently delivering clear-eyed lyrics that are full of good vibes in songs that run the gamut from pop-minded folk to throwback country-rock. His 2015 album, Medicine, was all about the healing power of music and the sentiment continues on the follow-up, Souvenir (out March 24).
Standout “Fight for Love” is a charging optimistic anthem filled with soaring harmonica solos that was written as a call to action against last year’s election results, while “New Year” is a soulful meditation on the reality that fresh starts will inevitably come with new challenges. One of the album’s darkest moments, “Rowdy Heart, Broken Wing,” is a rustic front-porch reflection on trying to escape a restless mind set to minimalist finger-picking accompanied by gentle banjo rolls. Holcomb ultimately finds perspective in “Wild World,” a tranquil folk song about embracing unity in which he sings no matter what you believe “you still deserve the love of your neighbors.” In a time when positive protest is needed, Holcomb and his band have provided some definite keepsakes.
Appearing at the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville, Va., on March 29; the McGlohon Theatre in Charlotte, N.C. on March 30; the Orange Peel in Asheville, N.C. on April 1; and the Blind Tiger in Greensboro, N.C., on April 2.