Jay Farrar With Canyon, October 16th, The Middle East Club, Cambridge, Mass.
It was perhaps the worst night anyone could have picked to play Boston—game seven of the ALCS between the Yankees and the Red Sox. A small group of hardcore Jay Farrar fans gathered around a TV set behind the downstairs bar at the Middle East Club, watching their beloved Sox vie for a spot in the World Series. Farrar was in town supporting Terroir Blues, backed by opening band Canyon. Farrar fans are a dedicated lot, but so are Red Sox fans. There were about fifty people, in a venue that holds more than five hundred, huddled around that TV set, watching intently, not noticing the members of Canyon walking by. One guy stood near the stage, peering back at the TV through a pair of binoculars.
When Canyon’s Brandon Butler strapped on his Telecaster to get tuned up for the show, a few fans straggled out to the floor to stake their spot. About 10:30, an hour-and-a-half after the doors opened, Canyon started with a steady pulse of churning guitars. The crowd was still split between the TV and the stage. A sudden burst of sound brought the audience to their side, everyone with a nervous eye cast to the screen. A big hit or an out would bring them back, but they rocked along with the music anyway.
With their team solidly ahead for the moment, Boston fans were happy to indulge in the music for a while, especially after Butler assured them the Sox would win, that he had it fixed. Canyon played a swooping set of guitar-based Americana that fell somewhere between Springsteen and Built to Spill. Guitarist Joe Winkle was the central source of feedback, playing slide and using an Ebow to even out the sound. By the time they’re finished, they’ve played an impressive set, but the game is tied going into intermission. The audience applauds their appreciation, but then it’s back to the TV.
It was almost too much to take. As the game went into extra innings, Farrar waited backstage. Finally, in the tenth inning, he took the stage, saying nothing before thundering into “The Direction” off of Sebastapol, continuing right on through “Make It Alright,” and “No Rolling Back,” interspersing tape loops of the “Space Junk” series as he would throughout the show. Canyon gave Farrar’s catalogue a bit more muscle, filling in the dry or light spaces of the original recordings. It was a good match, one that lifted the songs without making them unrecognizable.
In the middle of “Cohakian,” tragedy struck the crowd. One hit, and their Red Sox were done. As the situation started to sink in, the song took on a marching feel, building into a “Tomorrow Never Knows”-like finale. A group of fans sat at the bar staring at the TV in disbelief, while most headed onto the main floor to drown their troubles. “Fool’s King Crown” went from the Eastern flavored hoe-down of the album version to a tom-thumping romp.
After that, the show took on a cathartic feel. If he’d played it ten minutes earlier, "All Your Might"—with its chorus of “You been pushed before/And pushed back with all of your might”—would have made the crowd optimistic. As it was, it was musical judo, taking the crowds’ own momentum and using it to push them into the show. “Heart on the Ground” was an explosion, fans singing along, “You don’t have to feel that way/You don’t have to twist the knife”.
Keeping in mind he was only halfway through his set, Farrar slowed the pace a bit with stripped-down versions of “California” and “Hanging On to You.” Canyon proved their versatility, backing Farrar with accordion, lap steel and acoustic guitar—whatever the song called for. It wasn’t until after “Barstow,” the 10th tune of the night, that Farrar finally spoke to the crowd, simply asking, “How’s everybody doin’?”
Farrar finished the main set with an overdriven quintet of tunes from Sebastapol – “Damn Shame,” “Vitamins,” “Feed Kill Chain,” “Voodoo Candle,” and “Clear Day Thunder.” Winkle provided most of the guitar heroics, rising over the din with a rich reverb that was embellished by the mostly empty cavern in front of him.
Songs form the Son Volt catalogue finally appeared for the ubiquitous encore, which focused mostly on Farrar as a troubadour with an acoustic guitar. After “Driving the View,” he smiled for the first time as a fan shouted something to him. He sheepishly looked out at the crowd as if he hadn’t quite noticed them before, and said, “Sorry ‘bout the baseball thing, man.” “Tear Stained Eye” and “Windfall” erased any poor feelings. The evening felt complete at that point, but Farrar came out one last time to rip through Piper at the Gates of Dawn-era Pink Floyd’s "Lucifer Sam.” It was a surprise ending, but Farrar and Canyon sounded great, regressing to a rocking garage band, bringing out the shakers and big dumb guitars for a final sprint.
After getting a lift from Canyon and Farrar, the fans at the Middle East Club were probably the most well-adjusted Red Sox fans in Boston.