Weblog of Leland Rucker
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The Best-Dressed Man in Americana: Jay Farrar


Fox Theatre
The Hill-Boulder
Sept. 11, 2004

One of my duties as a KCUV disc jockey is to announce shows, which is why I’m at the Fox Theatre tonight. Amie, who’s in charge of things, is telling me that Jay hasn’t signed off on the announcer thing yet, and she certainly wasn’t going to bother him about it just now because he was having sushi.

Fine. So I killed some time just standing in front of the Fox and Tulagi buildings. As always, I’m wondering how I can build on the landmark designation of the Fox, which happened during my first landmark-board meeting, to include Tulagi, the best-known structure in Boulder, during my tenure as well.

I remember standing here one night when Cheap Trick played a three-night stand at the Fox a few years back, showcasing a different album each night. I was there for Heaven Tonight to see them play “Surrender.” Before the show, standing in this spot, Trick’s Rick Nielsen pushed down his sunglasses when he looked up at the Tulagi sign, grinned a bit, and said, “I played there,” and added after a pause, grabbing his beard, “long before Cheap Trick.”

Which is, ultimately why Tulagi should be landmarked – thousands of musicians have a similar story to tell; those walls reverberate with the entire history of seventies rock’n’roll on the road, though they are woefully quiet tonight.

Justin, the production manager at the Fox, comes out and hands me a ticket, tells me that Jay apparently got his fill of sushi and approved the KCUV introduction and to meet him at 10:50 down by the stage door.

I find a wooden perch to hang onto for what turned out to be two-fifths of Drag The River. Neither introduced themselves beyond that, but both guys apparently write songs and play rhythm guitar. They didn’t explain what happened to the other three-fifths of the band.

During an hour-long set, they sang three or four pretty decent songs and otherwise invoked the hoariest of Americana clichés. A song called, I think, “It’s Tough Being a Drunkard” got the most applause.

Almost every song performed by two-fifths of Drag the River is in the key of D, no matter which one sings lead, and every one included the obligatory BIG strum

whenever you hit minor chords, especially during the (often interminable) ballads, which were especially grievous in the cliché department. The performance was mediocre, they were both somewhat apologetic about that fact, and beyond that, completely forgettable.

During the set, I spy a couple guys in their fifties, both with matching KCUV T-shirts. They look like nerds. Yikes! Then I look down at my KCUV T-shirt. Gulp! They look just like me. Except I’m even nerdier: I also have a JACK baseball cap on. We’d look like the Three Stooges if we were together.

I meet Justin down in front of the stage at the appointed time, and he hands me a list of upcoming shows to announce at the Fox. Just say, “Jay will be out in a few minutes,” he reminded me.

The roadie for Jay grabbed me and warned me that I was good to go, and under no circumstances was I to touch the microphone.

I walk out onstage. Hit the bullet points: “Colorado’s Underground Voice,” “American Roots Music,” “1510 on the AM dial, where all the progressive music is these days,” “KCUV Presents Drive-by Truckers at the Bluebird …” “Fox upcoming shows,” “SUPPORT LOCAL RADIO,” “Screw the corporations,” and the most important: “Jay will be out in a few minutes.”

Didn’t touch the mike. The roadie said I did fine.

Standing down in front waiting for Farrar, Troy of Buckskin Stallion taps me on the shoulder and introduces himself. Says he’ll send me a CD.

On comes Jay and his accompanist, Mark Spencer, who sits down a couple of feet in front of me, slaps a pastel blue lap steel between his legs and begins scratching out the riff for “Doesn’t Have to Be This Way.”

It’s then that I notice that Jay Farrar is the cleanest, best-dressed man in Americana.

It was remarkable only because it was so surprising. Americana artists, like 2/5 of Drag the River, all pretty much look and dress the same. Cheap, ill-fitting clothes and hair that hasn’t seen a comb or brush since Uncle Tupelo broke up. Dirty shirts and jeans are almost obligatory, like a sharkskin suit defined Wilson Pickett. The Ryan Adams look (sometimes in Denver called the Doug Kaufman look) still rules.

In contrast, there is the spit-polished Farrar. He defines spic and span. He was the kid in high school who let his bangs grow a little long, but never let his hair get stringy or out of place. He could pass morning muster at any military boot camp. Black shoes with no scuffs. Chinos that could come from the Gap or Eddie Bauer. A creamy, slightly oversized white shirt with a big collar and – get this! – tucked in!!!

I’m guessing the guys in Drag the River haven’t put their shirttails inside their jeans since the nuns made them do it at Our Lady of Perpetual Pain grade school. (And I did find a couple of older photos on Google Image where Farrar performs with his shirt tail out, but the shirt is neatly pressed just the same.)

Tonight, his hair is clean and shiny in the stage lights, with short, clipped sideburns. You could almost smell his after-shave. I’ll bet he makes his bed in the morning even when he’s staying at a motel. Now I know why I couldn’t touch the mike – it might give him cooties.

The fastidiousness of his appearance matches his onstage physical presence (or some might say, lack of it). I like his songs, but he’s a little stiff, his guitar playing as economical and finicky as his wardrobe. It would be physically impossible for him to break a sweat.

Four of the first five songs are in the key of D – apparently the universal Americana key. The strumming never varies; no motion, or emotion, for that matter, wasted. The only things that change from one song to the next are the melody and words.

His voice never wavers, either. He sings the songs exactly as on record. Spencer pulls and gnaws at the strings of his Telecaster and lap steel as if to single-handedly relieve the boredom of Farrar’s insistent rhythms and sing-song vocals. (Later, at home, I realized his licks, too, were exactly as they were on the record, only louder because I was standing next to him.)

It’s 11:15, the floor is getting mighty crowded, and I have some wet paint at home that I’d rather watch dry. The immaculate godfather of alt-country drones on. Maybe the DVD will be better.

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