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Protest Rocks 

It's odd that Son Volt would play Pig Out in the Park. They have an edgy, barroom country-rock sound and an ambitious new album that, essentially, hails the return of the politically fuelled, socially conscious singer/songwriter. Seems like they wouldn't be the first choice for an event promoter putting on a something-for-everyone gig. Nonetheless, Son Volt will be here Friday on the Clock Tower Stage. So, if you're still eating at 8 pm, be prepared to have that Tandoori Chicken with a side of social commentary. For the duration of the set, those gyros will be served with fries and a little "grassroots insurrection."

Son Volt has been around since 1995, when Jay Farrar's previous band, Uncle Tupelo, dissolved. He was offered a record contract as a solo artist, but says he was still most interested in recording in a group dynamic. Son Volt went on to put out three records, and are credited with having defined the Alt-Country genre on albums like Trace. Uncle Tupelo, for its part, had previously been credited with creating the genre Son Volt perfected. So Farrar, now the only remaining member of Son Volt's original lineup, knows something about melding roots rock and country elements into something that evokes the hardship and struggle of the poor, along with a spirit of defiance for the status quo.

The new album, Okemah and the Melody of Riot, finds Farrar at his most outraged. From the disenfranchisement of the poor to the endless killing in Iraq, Farrar's voice here harkens back to a time when music could raise questions. On "Six String Belief" he wonders why it ever stopped raising those questions and predicts that the questioning will begin again. While it's clear he's angry, Farrar never resorts to vitriol, choosing to examine the issues, rather than rant about them. And far from the current trend (especially in country music) of nationalistic fervor and us-against-them jingoism, Farrar believes there's blame to go around. "Getting that old-time feeling again. Mad men on both sides of the fence," he sings.

The album's title, as well as the opening track, invokes the spirit of Woody Guthrie, perhaps America's pioneering folk voice for the working class. "Woody has always been sort of a point of reference [for me] when thinking about music and topical issues," He said. Farrar, though, does note differences between Guthrie's era and our own. "The stock market crash of 1929 sort of galvanized a movement and made one large unemployed populace, where before the system was more stratified," Farrar remarked, before adding, "much like it is today." Stratification, indeed, has been one of Farrar's favorite topics since the days of Uncle Tupelo.

Son Volt will be bringing all those years of protest rocking to Pig Out. Farrar says they've been practicing for about a week, wanting to play from Okemah, but also "songs off the first three Son Volt albums, as well as some covers."

Friday, then, you'll hear allusions to Bob Dylan and odes to Woodie Guthrie. You might catch a little jab at our nation's favorite Air National Guard member, but you'll have to listen carefully. And that's exactly what protest rock has always been about: not beating you over the head with a message, but speaking simply and compassionately to those who want to listen. It's a nice move back to a more cordial time when politics wasn't so divisive or so coarse, when people could contemplate problems and have the guts to admit they don't have all the answers.

And, while you may not agree with his politics, rejoice that an artist has seen fit to enunciate his ideas without hiding behind patriotic clich & eacute;s and pseudo-religious claptrap. These words are his, and they're not directed angrily out at an unsympathetic and violent world. On Okemah and the Melody of Riot, as he will be Friday, Farrar's thoughts are turned inward, interested in the very specific problems of being poor in America. Hate the message if you must, but recognize at least that Farrar and Son Volt are actively engaging in a dialogue.

Open and honest dialogue, no matter how you cook it, smells an awful lot like democracy. And everybody likes democracy.

Son Volt plays at the Clock Tower Stage at Pig Out in the Park on Friday, Sept. 2, at 8 pm. Free. For a listing of all Pig Out shows, check www.spokanepigout.com/bands.

My So-Called Arms | There's something precocious about These Arms are Snakes. The name is part of it, I think. That, along with the title of their latest album: Oxeneers or The Lion Sleeps When Its Antelope Go Home, create this kind of bratty, hyper-literate high school punk band feel.

Either they're really smart or they're trying hard to make you believe they are. Regardless, it works. Oxeneers is a challenging and intricate album that makes good on the promise of the band's debut EP, This Is Meant To Hurt You.

They'll be at Fat Tuesday's next Thursday, Sept. 8, opening for Minus the Bear. It might be a good idea to see them now, before it's too late.

This is all speculation, of course - and perhaps a little biased - but These Arms Are Snakes bear a striking resemblance to At the Drive-In. They both create atmospheric musical tropes that support and emulsify some richly symbolic lyrics. They both have a tendency toward a scream-whisper-scream dynamic. Whatever.

It's not a perfect comparison, but there is this: Oxeneers' sixth track, "Gadget Arms," betrays a rhythm section in the beginning stages of a love affair with prog-rock's masturbatory decadence. For a fan who might be worried that his favorite band is becoming too concerned with art for art's sake, finding extended prog sections is like catching your child with cigarettes. Is this all he'll try? Is it on to Quaaludes after this?

For At the Drive-In, the result of dancing with the fickle mistress of prog was a fracture into two bands, a puerile pop-punk outfit not worth mentioning and the Mars Volta. The Mars Volta create some gorgeous soundscapes, but they've proven to not care much if their music connects with people. And while their first album was wildly ambitious (and, in my opinion, awesome), their latest has been roundly criticized for being digressive and impenetrable. Accused, essentially, of being prog.

Meaning this: Prog-rock is a two-edged sword, and both sides are sharp as hell. A prog influence can be like a second singer, telling lucid, grandiose, orchestral stories-behind-the-stories. It can just as easily be a navel-gazing exercise in guitar solos, electronic textures and big, dumb album titles.

Though they were always good, there was a stint where At the Drive-In was almost perfect. It was somewhere between the punk-with-ambition of their earlier albums and the bifurcated wreck we see before us now.

If there's a lesson to be learned, it's similar to the one you hear all the time in a movie of the week on the Lifetime channel. Treasure the formative years, ladies and gentlemen, while your favorite band is growing and evolving in exciting new ways, because soon you might not even understand what they're doing anymore.

It's not as though "Gadget Arms" is even a bad song. It's a perversely wonderful song that hints at bad songs to come. Enjoy it while you can, or you may wake up one morning and find your beloved These Arms are Snakes have given themselves over fully to sex, drugs and prog. -- Luke Baumgarten

These Arms Are Snakes open for Minus the Bear, with Thunderbirds Are Now! and Fine for Now at Fat Tuesday's on Thursday, Sept. 8. Doors open at 7 pm. Tickets: $10; $12 at the door. Call 489-3969 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.

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