son volt

for The Oklahoman

by David McClister
by David McClister

Jay Farrar, songwriter and singer for Son Volt, laments the state of things in no uncertain terms on the band’s new record, “Union,” released in March of this year.

“Lady Liberty, are you still here?” he sings in his trademark melancholy voice in the midst of 13 songs tackling prominent headlines from the last few years, the immigrant experience and the fate of whistleblower Reality Winner, among other things.

Farrar formed Son Volt in 1994 after leaving Uncle Tupelo, the band he co-wrote for with Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. Son Volt has undergone several lineup changes and done some stylistic experimentation since, including the blues-focused “Notes of Blue” record in 2017.

For “Union,” Farrar largely focused his songwriting in the traditions of protest folk songs, with calls for justice and character narratives inspired by tracks like Guthrie’s “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos” and Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane.” Son Volt recorded a portion of the record at the Mother Jones Museum in Mount Olive, Illinois, and several songs at Tulsa’s Woody Guthrie Center to draw inspiration from the museums’ namesakes.

Son Volt returns to Oklahoma for a Tuesday show at the Jones Assembly. Here he comments in a recent interview for The Oklahoman:

Q: As a non-Oklahoman, when did your relationship with Woody Guthrie start?

Farrar: The relationship with Woody Guthrie probably started when I found Woody Guthrie records in my folks’ record collection. Eventually I started buying his records and seeing the connection and the inspiration he gave to Bob Dylan and that sort of continuum. Woody was a spokesman for the underprivileged, and he kind of represented the idea that there’s more to life than just making a buck.

Q: Why was it important to you to record at the Woody Guthrie Center, in close proximity to his material?

Farrar: Part of it was a field trip just to get out of the studio, and the other purpose was to kind of highlight people that have made a difference — Woody Guthrie is one, and Mother Jones is the other. I felt like it would be a good challenge to get out of the recording studio to a different environment and maybe be inspired along the way.

Q: The Woody Guthrie Center is located on a street that was named after a member of the KKK, in a district of Tulsa that was formerly named after him. There are a lot of juxtapositions like that in this part of the country. How do you think being from the Midwest and South has affected your relationship to a folk music, and to politics by extension?

Farrar: I didn’t know that. Being in the middle of the country does inform the way you think about things and your sensibility. When you have members of your own family and friends that you know think differently than you, you have to kind of walk a fine line. That’s more or less the approach I tried to take with “Union”— putting some ideas out there for discussion really is what it’s all about. A lot of it was coming straight from headlines: “The 99” is kind of a composite sketch of the Dakota Pipeline protest and the Ferguson protest and the Occupy protest, going back a few years. “Union” is just kind of acknowledging the cultural divide that’s going on. That’s something you run into every day being in the middle of the country.

Q: You’ve said that it felt like a responsibility to address these topics in your songs. Is that the responsibility of a songwriter or just the responsibility as a human being?

Farrar: To me, they’re one and the same. Protest music seems to me to be a longstanding tradition that I was exposed to early on. It was much more pervasive going back to when I first started listening to music in the ‘70s, music that had come from the ′60s, the Vietnam War era. It was just much more commonplace then and through the ′80s and ′90s with punk rock. Protest music seems to be disappearing in some ways. It’s not as prevalent as it used to be.

Q: Do you have any sort of apprehension or concern about the shelf life of a record that is dealing with current events?

Farrar: I do and I don’t, you know. I don’t know if my songs will have a shelf life, but I’m certainly glad that people like Neil Young decided to do what they did, write a song like “Ohio.” To me that’s a timeless song, but during the writing of the songs for “Union,” there was a midpoint where I at least thought of that and tried to present two sides to the record. There are a few songs that are non-topical, where I was trying to kind of be inspired by a more regular rock ethos.

Q: With your song “The Symbol” (about a Mexican immigrant) as a parallel for Woody Guthrie’s “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos,” it seems like these sentiments are more timeless than I think we want them to be.(Story continued below…)

Farrar: That’s right. Unfortunately it’s almost like a certain theme that can just be updated every generation.

Q: When you’re writing, do you just write songs, or do you know that you’re writing a record — a collection of songs?

Farrar: It’s usually about three songs in probably. You get a sense that this is where the songs want to go either thematically or perhaps sonically.

Q: One of the hallmarks of your songwriting and producing is establishing guideposts for yourself like alternate guitar tunings or switching musical equipment, or even just deciding that you need to write so many rock songs on a protest record. What are some of the other parameters you set for “Union”?

Farrar: On “Notes of Blue,” I had concentrated more on using alternate tunings. That was also more of a skeleton crew of myself and Jacob Edwards and Mark Spencer playing a bunch of instruments. This time we had a band chemistry. We’ve played a lot of shows together on the road, and that’s reflected on this record. The guitar solos were handled by Chris Frame; I sort of stepped back and let him do that so there was a new flavor, a new perspective that was different from “Notes of Blue.” We talked about getting out to different recording environments where you really don’t know what’s going to happen. Just the idea of being challenged sort of makes things fresh in a way.

Q: If the songwriting is your half of a collective social responsibility, that implies there’s a hoped-for or expected response. You put this record out into the world. Now what do you want people to take from it?

Farrar: I sort of feel like I’m just asking questions, you know. I don’t have the answers, but I hope that these songs add to the discussion.

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justin timberlake

Concert Review: ‘The 20/20 Experience’ experience propels Justin Timberlake to the head of the pop pack
for The Oklahoman

by Nate Billings
by Nate Billings

Justin Timberlake’s context doesn’t do him any favors, but he doesn’t need them anyway.

For the under-20 set, Timberlake’s sordid boy band past is kept alive primarily by animated GIFs and Buzzfeed lists—and a sorely disappointing ‘N Sync reunion at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards.

Those of us old enough to remember Timberlake 1.0—and I saw ‘N Sync at what was then Texas Stadium when I was in junior high—fully understand that by now, he’s grown into more than just the sum of his ramen noodle-haired, denim-on-denim predecessor’s parts: He’s a bona fide superstar, a rare breed. He’s mega-famous but likable, eloquent enough, funny and, critically, he’s not generationally stunted in his fan base. People’s grandparents know Justin Timberlake, and so do their youngest children. My dad likes him. The pair of teenage girls next to me said they flew 14 hours to OKC for this concert, from New Zealand.

So take the head boy out of the boy band, and drop him onstage years later surrounded by a highly capable band (lovingly referred to as the Tennessee Kids), an expensive light show and a slew of seductive songs, and in this case, you have what’s sort of an ideal, universal arena pop experience: He’s not garish and neon, nor especially youthful like Katy Perry. He isn’t confusing or kind of scary like Lady Gaga, not eye-rollingly begging you to like him like some weaker-than contestant on “The Voice” and not beyond human comprehension like Beyonce.

Instead, he’s a professional entertainer who happens to be attractive, able to sing while he’s dancing, charming and sexy—but also definitely on the clock. His cool isn’t effortless, but meticulously calculated. And in this environment, maybe that’s even cooler.

Timberlake, clad in a black suit but no tie, opened the show with “Pusher Love Girl,” from 2013’s “The 20/20 Experience,” a slow-burning introduction preceded by a lengthy video montage. He swiftly moved into “Rock Your Body,” the oppresively danceable ’70s-inspired hit from 2002’s “Justified,” the debut solo record that catapulted him into, at minimum, mainstream acceptance, and at most, tipped off the would-be dismissives that maybe there was something more important happening with Timberlake than factory vocal runs and five assembled dudes dancing in unison…though this show had plenty of the latter, too.

A trio of memorable tracks from 2006’s “Futuresex/Lovesounds” (a fearless record so geniusly crafted for its time that it turned a certain pop-cynical college student into a full-blown fan) followed, then a tough-as-nails live rendition of “TKO,” before a crowd address: “I see some girls that got their hair did. Dudes, you’re welcome. Don’t say I never did anything for you, single gentlemen.”

Set one closed with revenge track “Cry Me a River,” performed at, even by comparison to the rest of the show, an obscenely loud volume.

A brief intermission ended with “Only When I Walk Away,” then an impromptu Garth Brooks cover of “Friends in Low Places,” after which Timberlake labeled Brooks “the GOAT”—greatest of all time. The New Zealanders next to me had never heard the song, but the other 16,000-plus attendees confidently sang every note.

Later highlights include “Tunnel Vision,” which JT performed solo in front of a video of naked women, and “Let the Groove Get In,” a modern “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”-esque number during which Timberlake & co. rode on a moving platform stage clear to the other side of the arena.

Covers like “Heartbreak Hotel,” a nod to Timberlake’s Tennessee upbringing, and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” somehow paled in comparison to his own tracks, in the moment. That’s the thing about Justin Timberlake: Even his more recent singles seem immune to the ephemeral nature of pop songs. He’s inserted himself so seamlessly into the canon that the opening strain of a mindless, pointless drone of a song like “SexyBack” sends a crowd into a frenzy, excited to be a part of something we all already know. Even if that something isn’t very good.

Timberlake closed the show with “Mirrors,” probably the strongest track from both editions of “The 20/20 Experience,” a pseudo-ballad with swelling instrumentals and an inviting choice for a massive sing-along.

The 20/20 Experience World Tour was, I guess unsurprisingly, a get-what-you-pay-for ticket, and impressive from start to finish: a polished affair of a caliber that I haven’t seen from anyone in this genre, including a comparatively forgettable Timberlake himself, 15 years ago.

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michael buble

Concert Review: Canadian crooner Michael Buble’s “To Be Loved” tour melts hearts at Chesapeake Energy Arena
for The Oklahoman

There are musicians, and there are entertainers, and then there is Michael Buble, who stepped onto the stage at the Chesapeake Energy Arena Saturday night amidst a burst of actual flames during the opening strains of his take on Little Willie John’s “Fever.” And by stepped, I mean did a standing slide down a ramp, in a tuxedo, with building-sized graphics of fire behind him—without missing a note.

What felt at first like a bit of a gaudy throwback quickly humanized when, after the first song ended, Buble addressed the crowd: “I hope you liked that opening with the fire. I spent all of my money on that.” And then, with a smirk, “The rest of the show is s***.”

It wasn’t that, of course, though when your two-hour set is comprised of a guy in red carpet-level dress mostly just reaching far into the Great American Songbook, you have a bit of a can’t-miss.

That’s probably an accurate way to describe Buble, particularly in a live setting when given a chance to engage with his audience: He’s a can’t miss. It is exceedingly difficult to find something to not like about him, even if you try. And that’s curious, since Buble, while a capable vocalist, certainly wasn’t the best musician onstage last night. He’s funny, but he’s not an incendiary comedian, and he’s endearing but not overwhelmingly so.

What Buble has done somehow is touched on a magical combination of sweet and vulgar, down-home and—dare I say it—sexy, with measurable talent and a penchant for snazzy dress to boot. It’s a rare, old-world sort of charisma that he possesses and manipulates quite naturally. Against all odds, this Canadian nerd really does own the stage.

A handkerchief toss during “I’ve Got the World on a String” sent a small section of the first few rows into a feeding frenzy, just after the singer introduced each member of his band with a personalized “Team Buble” ESPN-style graphic on the big screen and a laugh-grabbing non sequitur like, “When I grow up, I want to be just like him: a big, sassy black dude.”

The singer’s renditions of Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” and Nat King Cole’s “That’s All” followed and were concert highs, musically speaking. There were moments during those two songs in particular where the guy looking for the laugh disappeared, and in his place, a veteran performer just very, very seriously singing songs he clearly loves.

Those peaks were followed by an uncomfortable anachronism in a confusing rendition of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” during which Buble headed through the crowd to a secondary rear stage. From there, he performed classics “Who’s Loving You” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” accompanied by the tour’s supporting act, the a cappella performance group Naturally 7, whose crowd-pleasing earlier set included the most endearing version of a Coldplay song anyone has heard in years.

After performing his own hit “It’s a Beautiful Day,” Buble left the stage briefly, then returned and admitted he hates the ceremony of the staged encore. After a Drifters cover and an impromptu duet of Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” with an adorable child plucked from the audience, Buble closed with Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” calling Russell a genius. He paused, asked the crowd to be quiet, and finished the song with no microphone, just a spotlight and hushed grand piano accompaniment. It was a pretty moment, though unfortunately out of place with the crowd and tone of the preceding show.

At one point, Buble professed his hope that, despite how cynical the world is, that people in the crowd could just escape for a little while. He said he does it all “for romance, for love,” and a palpable group swoon left thousands of ladies swatting cartoon hearts from around their heads and, thanks to a fluttery downpour during “All You Need Is Love,” leaving them alongside the confetti hearts on the floor.

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