Ben Gibbard and Jay Farrar at Turner Hall
Two indie-rock stalwarts pay musical tribute to Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur
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At first blush, the idea of an alt-country concept album based on a late-period Jack Kerouac novel seems precious at best, and a pretentious gimmick at worst. Factor in the album’s collaborators—Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, and Son Volt front man Jay Farrar—and you’ve got a real indie-rock head scratcher. But first impressions can be deceiving: One Fast Move Or I’m Gone finds the singer-songwriters putting the Beat author’s Big Sur to music, creating something new and even revelatory in the process. Likewise, Saturday's sold-out show at Turner Hall presented the duo’s loose-limbed experiment in a new light—spry and slightly souped-up—even while the Kerouac connection was sometimes lost on the crowd. “You’ve all read Big Sur, right?” asked Farrar early on in the set. Hearing only a smattering of affirmative applause, the singer deadpanned, “Hmm, gotta work on that.”
Familiarity with the source material notwithstanding, the capacity crowd was treated to a memorable show that wore its heart on its sleeve. Opener Sera Cahoone started things off with a set of solid—if unremarkable—acoustic ballads, her voice thankfully devoid of the Feist/Regina Spektor tics plaguing so many recent female singer-songwriters. Gibbard and Farrar took the stage soon after—along with Death Cab bassist Nick Harmer, Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster, and pedal steel player Mark Spencer—and launched into the first four songs from One Fast Move. Swapping vocal and electric organ duties throughout the night, the pair projected a warm, unforced chemistry that meshed well with their mellow material. If the evening found Farrar in comfortable musical terrain, it was something of a sea change for Gibbard. Indeed, a handful of vocal, fraternity-ready fans seemed confused by the show’s AM country vibe, compensating with a few ill-advised “yee-haws!” throughout the night.
Performing nearly all of the 12 songs from One Fast Move, both singers also sprinkled some of their own, more obscure, compositions into the set. Farrar performed “Feel Free,” a track from his 2001 solo album, Sebastopol, while Gibbard dusted off “Couches In Alleys,” a song from a 2004 collaboration with Belgian electronica artist Styrofoam. The song’s opening lines, “Hey Jack, it's me/I don't mean to bother you/but something’s been on my mind” are a clear nod to Kerouac, nicely putting a point on how the author has informed much of Gibbard’s career.
Though most of the evening was somewhat hushed, the mid-set “Breathe Our Iodine” seemed to loosen up both crowd and band alike. A sparse, haunting song sung by Farrar, the live performance benefited from a terse opening half before unexpectedly exploding into a full-band rave-up. The 90-minute show was capped off by a three-song encore, beginning with One Fast Move’s final track, "San Francisco," and ending with a well-chosen cover of Tom Waits’ "Old Shoes (And Picture Postcards).” The bittersweet chorus afforded Gibbard and Farrar a fitting send-off (“Farewell to the girl with the sun in her eyes/I’ll kiss you and then I’ll be gone”), and as the house lights rose it was easy to look past the novelty of their project, and the potential embarrassment of its overly earnest intent. This was something surprising, something sincere.