Uncle Tupelo and Joe Henry

By William Brents

The last time I saw Uncle Tupelo was in '92 when they opened for the Dead Milkmen. I remember Tupelo's short set was both stunning and mildly disappointing.

March 3 at the Phoenix Hill Tavern marked the return of Uncle Tupelo. I figured this time around, with stronger material and several extra musicians to help round out their country-rock sound, I would be a happy victim of a musical TKO. As it turned out, I was never floored, but staggered on several occasions.

Uncle Tupelo is led by a pair of outstanding singer/songwriters, Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy. Both share a similar point of view, strongly expressed through richly detailed songs of honest desperation and loss.

Farrar, who was a bit laid-back during his vocal leads, contrasted with Tweedy, who poured out his rough-and-tumble vocals with energy and conviction.

Uncle Tupelo can certainly rock. "Chickamauga" rocked harder than most songs performed by true hard-rock bands. Tupelo, being unsatisfied with mere rock, turned their attention to country. I'm not talking about that southern rock stuff, I'm talking about deep, authentic, classic country. The type of music defined by the soaring sounds of the mandolin, fiddle and banjo. The mixture struck an impressive and passionate balance.

Prior to the Tupelo set we were treated to two enjoyable opening acts: Joe Henry, who musically mirrored Uncle Tupelo, and local musician Warren Ray.

Henry began his set with a slow-burning, pure country song and quickly followed with an up-tempo gem that was more my speed.

Henry's super-tight band included multi-instrumentalist Mike Russell and a lap steel guitar player who effortlessly created a haunting, old-fashioned country echo. "Look Alive," a new song about a sniper who wants you to love your life or else, was nicely done and the healthy turnout showed their appreciation.

Ray's acoustic set was also pleasing. His hard-luck, rootsy rock songs seized my attention, especially on "Runaway" and the exceptional "Miss You Hard."

Ray was joined by Peter Searcy, who played the cello, and Phil Wakeman on the mandolin for several tunes, including a gorgeous Matthew Sweet cover.