The harder the times, the harder the rock: Unhappiness with the recent direction his career and his country have taken seemed to electrify Jay Farrar and Son Volt at the 9:30 club Friday.
Much of the music Farrar has made since the 1994 breakup of his storied ex-band, Uncle Tupelo, has been lyrically obtuse and musically boring. His solo career was eating into the supply of goodwill Farrar built up while with Tupelo and in the early days of his subsequent project, Son Volt, which disbanded in 2000 and has recently re-formed.
But Farrar apparently wants to change course. "Words of Woody Guthrie ringing in my head," he sang on "Bandages & Scars," a song from Son Volt's latest CD, "Okemah and the Melody of Riot" that announces his new, comprehension-friendly agenda. (Okemah, Okla., is Guthrie's birthplace.) Farrar devoted much of the quintet's two-hour set to songs off the disc, and most were as easy to decipher as "This Land Is Your Land." And just as politically motivated: The mocking "Jet Pilot" targeted George W. Bush's National Guard stint, while "6 String Belief" updated the "This machine kills fascists" message Guthrie used to proclaim on his guitar. "A grass-roots insurrection will bring them down!" Farrar sang over guitars as fuzzy and loud as he's ever played. His lefty leanings were revealed again with a cover of the Clash's anthem "Armagideon Time."
But even when words failed him, Farrar's rock instincts were chillingly great. He wailed "ooooh ooooh oooh oooh oooh" over power chords on "Who," a tune as lyrically incomprehensible and melodically irresistible as anything on REM's "Murmur." In some past area performances Farrar has exuded all the personality of a palace guard. But on this night he delivered old Volt (including "Drown" and "Tear-Stained Eye") and Tupelo nuggets ("Chickamauga") with a vintage lack of restraint. He's back.
-- Dave McKenna
Machel Montano and Xtatik's Friday night show at the Crossroads may not have actually started until 1:35 Saturday morning, but neither the band nor the enthusiastic audience looked the least bit tired.
Montano, a 30-year-old dreadlocked Trinidadian, is one of the leading lights of soca, a genre that marries the lilt of calypso to scintillating fast rhythms drawn from America, the Caribbean and elsewhere. While many soca vocalists simply chant Jamaican dancehall-like verses over galloping programmed beats, Montano uses a band, Xtatik, which employs synthesizers, guitar, bass, drums, percussion and backing vocals.
A charismatic heartthrob, Montano did some splits during the opening number, "You," and then moved to the edge of the stage where women reached up to touch him. Behind Montano, Xtatik moved into overdrive with exhilarating soca-meets-ska and rock arrangements. The audience, jam-packed on the immense dance floor, began jumping up and down and waving flags from their homelands.
The band successful shifted quickly from one frenetic song to the next. Offering more than just soca's stereotypical "let's dance" lyrics, Montano occasionally slowed things down, warbling singsong verses of Bob Marley classics like "War" and "Lively Up Yourself." Further reaching out to the Afro-Caribbean diaspora he also offered a mid-set rap and reggaeton medley of Fat Joe's "Lean Back," Kanye West's "Gold Digger" and Daddy Yankee's "Gasolina."
But those covers were hardly the evening's highlights. On the homegrown melancholy soca-pop of "Dance With You," and the R&B-flavored "We Not Giving Up," the passionate lyrics resonated with the audience as Montano and his band energetically kept them moving.
-- Steve Kiviat Ambulance LTD
Ambulance LTD frontman Marcus Congleton has admitted that the band's brand of indie-pop is not the loudest or most attention-grabbing music around. But conceptually and poetically, he says on their Web site, "we kick [butt]."
It's a distinction evident at the quartet's solid if mostly unexceptional appearance at the Black Cat on Saturday. With only an EP and last year's self-titled debut behind them, Ambulance LTD mellowly rocked the sellout crowd with an efficiently paced one-hour set. Soft-edged guitar interplay and moody, shoe-gazing atmospherics dominated the show, though the band's wildly diverse, decades-spanning influences were represented with covers of Neil Young's "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" and the Velvet Underground's "Ocean," the album's hidden track and sole encore offering.
"Ocean" wasn't the only time Velvet was conjured onstage: The bluesy, slowly chugging first single from Ambulance LTD's debut, "Primitive (The Way I Treat You)," was one of the evening's standout performances, with Congleton doing his best Lou Reed. But the highlight of the set was the thrilling slow build of closer "Yoga Means Union," a tightly played instrumental.
The only disappointment of the show was the group's underwhelming stage presence. With little banter besides occasional thank-yous from Congleton and bassist Matt Dublin's limp "You guys are insatiable" before the encore, it was clear the band cares more about chops than charisma.
-- Tricia Olszewski