Pop: Lessons in Americana

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The Independent Culture
SON VOLT/WITNESS LA2

LONDON

ON PAPER this looks like an interesting contrast between two groups of not-so-young men who know what it is to sit around the kitchen playing guitars, on opposite sides of the Atlantic. First up are the new Wigan pretenders, Witness, reportedly friends of Britain's arch balladeers The Verve (though, as they point out, "in Wigan, pretty much everybody knows someone who's out of The Verve").

It's fair to say that there's not exactly a riot going on - they're hardly the most forward of bands - but the four-piece shows enough promise to survive comparisons. The guitarist Ray Chan will certainly remind audiences of Nick McCabe, as much for his ability apparently to sit while in fact standing, as for his stylish slide technique, while the singer Gerard Starkie has a wide, warm range, already given to swoops into the bass register alongside Tim Buckley-esque flights of fancy. They play well within themselves, tempered perhaps by the fact that they've so far performed only a handful of shows, but there's enough room in the music, especially the pounding "So Far Gone" and the presumably untitled "6/8" to make them a tip for 1999. Tantalisingly tentative.

From Motorway 61 revisited to the real thing. The New Orleans-based Son Volt are exemplars of American alternative country, for which read "possessors of lap steel guitar and college degrees in arts rather than marketing". They were formed from the ashes of the critical favourites Uncle Tupelo - the other half became that bar band par excellence Wilco (rowdy, catchy, straightforward, sounding exactly like their influences). The founder, Jay Farrar has followed a more thoughtful path. Farrar, whose vocals and haircut resemble that of The Byrds' lost genius, Gene Clark, stands stock still at stage centre, as they purvey a doggedly relentless form of Americana-tinged rock.

"Straightface" might as well be called "Straightforward", as the drummer Mike Heidorn keeps up a strict rhythm for the first four songs, refusing to add emphasis to some of Dave Boquist's excellent lead playing. Things loosen up with the strum-along balladry of "Tear Stained Eye", and when Boquist picks up the viola, though his punctuation is a reflection of his guitar work. In general, they lack the wonderful raggedness of such patent inspirations as Dylan's work with The Band, or early REM. While contemporaries such as Teenage Fanclub and The Jayhawks successfully vary their palette, probably owing to sharing the songwriting load, Son Volt wear thin, despite finishing strongly with favourites such as "Windfall" and "Caryatid Easy".

It's not until the encores - The Stooges' frenetic "I Got a Right" and the Del-Vettes' wonderfully obscure garage-rock classic, "Last Time Around" - that we finally see Farrar relaxed and growling, and showing the audience that a history lesson can be fun after all.

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