Celebrating Sobriety and Song: A Concert Review of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Better Late Than Never

How long do you have after a concert to write a decent concert review? Hopefully it’s about one month because that’s how long it’s been since I saw Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. The concert took place on February 6th at the Modell Performing Arts Center at The Lyric in Baltimore. Despite the amount of time that’s passed since then, I think I can still write a post that will do the performance justice.

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Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit (Photo courtesy of nodepression.com)

In my holy trinity of songwriters, Jason Isbell sits beside Leonard Cohen and John Prine. As a songwriter, few people are able to tap into such a wide range of emotions like Jason Isbell. With songs like “Last of My Kind” and “Cover Me Up,” Jason knows how to articulate the feelings of loneliness, love, and vulnerability perfectly.  I’m not the only person who feels this way- his latest album, The Nashville Sound, was featured on numerous “best albums of 2017” lists (both official and unofficial lists).  Oh! And this album won the Grammy for Best Americana Album just a couple of weeks before the concert. He performed just about every song from this album that night-  “Cumberland Gap,” “Hope the High Road,” “Last of My Kind” (I’m not crying, there’s something in my eye), “Chaos and Clothes,” “White Man’s World,” (the politically charged song we need now more than ever) “Molotov,” “Tupelo,” and a song that I relate to all too well, “Anxiety.” During the encore, he sang a Drive-By Truckers song and “If We Were Vampires,” for which he had also just won the Grammy for Best American Roots Song. The only song from The Nashville Sound that he didn’t sing that night was “Something to Love.” As someone who absolutely loved The Nashville Sound, it was great getting to watch the band perform these songs live.

In addition to his songs with the 400 Unit, Jason also played some songs from his solo albums Southeastern and Something More Than Free. Songs like “24 Frames,” “Stockholm,” and “Something More Than Free.”

A Song of Love and Sobriety 

While his wife, Amanda Shires, who is the fiddler for the 400 Unit, isn’t always at the shows with the rest of the band (she has her own solo career- check her out!), I had the good fortune of seeing her perform that night. One of the highlights of that show was watching Jason sing the love song that he wrote for her, “Cover Me Up,” to her. The rest of the band left the stage for the occasion leaving Jason and Amanda on stage for an intimate performance. I realize how lucky all of us at the show in Baltimore were that night to have Amanda there and to be able to witness this expression of love.

Before the show, my friend that went with me brought up the fact that Tuesday was Jason’s six year anniversary of being sober. Amanda also pointed this out before he sang “Cover Me Up.” I needn’t tell you how moving it was to hear Jason sing the line “but I sobered up and I swore off that stuff, forever this time during “Cover Me Up” that night. After that line, the whole place applauded in support of Jason’s accomplishment. Thank you Jason for letting all of us at the Modell Lyric join you in celebrating six years of sobriety!

“A heart on the run keeps a hand on the gun
You can’t trust anyone
I was so sure what I needed was more
Tried to shoot out the sun
Days when we raged, we flew off the page
Such damage was done
But I made it through, ’cause somebody knew
I was meant for someone”

Not to criticize Jason, because I would never, but I was upset that he didn’t sing “Elephant“- I was prepared for a good, cathartic cry. I had checked out the set lists of his shows beforehand and saw that he had been including “Elephant” some nights so I thought maybe I’d get to see him perform it. Oh well! From my research, I knew that he wasn’t performing my favorite song of his, “Traveling Alone,” on this tour. That was probably for the best as I most likely would have been inconsolable if he had and nobody, I mean NOBODY, wants to see that!

Concerts on Concerts on Concerts

Since we’re on the topic, I’ll take the time now to talk about some upcoming shows that I’m going to (*) or are interested in seeing:

*3/15– Shane Smith and the Saints (song to check out: “All I See Is You“)
3/16– Nefesh Mountain- a Jewish bluegrass group (yep, you read that right)
*3/23– Lee Ann Womack (song to check out: “All The Trouble“)
*4/7– Colter Wall (that voice though)
*5/23– Margo Price at the Ryman Auditorium-I impulsively bought tickets to see Margo at the Mother Church of Country Music (with Colter Wall opening) and am still debating actually going (it would also be two days before the opening of the new Outlaws & Armadillos exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum so I’m thinking about making a couple days out of it and sticking around to see the exhibit. And I can always use an excuse to go to Nashville!)
6/1– Margo Price and John Prine
10/13– Chris Stapleton, Marty Stuart, and Brent Cobb

If you’re gonna be at any of these shows or are interested in attending any of these, holler!

The Life I’m Choosing 

Are you living the life you chose? Are you living the life that chose you?” asked Jason Isbell as his concert that night. If my life consists of seeing incredible musicians in concert like Jason Isbell and the others mentioned above, then yes, I am living the life I chose, and it’s a great one!

Currently listening to: Bobby Bare- “Streets of Baltimore.” Because it’s the greatest song about Baltimore I know!

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Burnin’ My Barn in Tyler Childers’ Honky Tonk Flame

Hello everyone- long time, no see! While I should take this time to apologize for my two month hiatus, I won’t simply because of the fact that I was spending that time well and doing things that make me happy. Since my last post, I’ve been lucky enough to see two of my favorite new artists in concert- Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit and Tyler Childers. After this past Thursday night’s Tyler Childers concert, I thought the blog could use another concert review. I actually started writing this yesterday with a pen and a notebook (old school, right?) since my power was out because of the crazy wind we’ve been having. I’ll try my best to make out my chicken scratch writing for the post below.

Tyler Childers at the Rock and Roll Hotel (March 1, 2018)

Before Thursday (3/1) night’s concert , I said that “Tyler Childers could sing the phone book and I’d pay to listen.” I realize how outdated a saying like that is nowadays because who still uses a phone book? Seriously, we had one delivered to our house not too long ago and I stared at it like “what the hell am I supposed to do with this?” I reckon it might have made a good doorstop. Perhaps I should update the saying to be more 2018 appropriate- “Tyler Childers could sing the names of my Instagram followers and I’d pay to listen.” Does that work? If you have any better suggestions, send ’em my way.

No matter what I would listen to Tyler Childers sing, this post is about what he did in fact sing. The concert Thursday night was at the Rock and Roll Hotel in DC and it was my first time there. The show was sold out and needless to say the place was packed! I also waited too long to get my ticket and wound up paying about five times the original ticket price. But was it worth it? Yep!

Tyler sang some of my favorite songs from his latest album Purgatory, which Sturgill Simpson helped produce along with David Ferguson. Songs like “Feathered Indians,” “Honky Tonk Flame,” “Universal Sound,” “White House Road,” “I Swear (to God),” and the song he introduced by calling it a redneck interpretation of reincarnation (or something like that), “Born Again.” He also sang the love song for his wife off of that album, “Lady May.” After the song finished I heard the guy next to me tell the lady that he was with that she was his “Lady May.” I don’t think there’s anything sweeter a man could ever say to a woman. Who says rednecks aren’t romantic?

Tyler also sang a couple of songs that I was newly familiar with like “Charleston Girl.” I had only discovered the song the morning before the concert and instantly took a liking to it. There were a bunch of songs I had never heard before and I reckon many of these came from his time with his old band, The Food Stamps. This was the case at least for two of the songs I remember liking and later looked up-  “Messed Up Kid” and “I Got Stoned and I Missed It.” While the guy in front of me was giving everyone in the room a contact high, I’m glad I wasn’t stoned and missed this concert.

Kelsey Waldon, another Kentuckian, opened for him and it was my first time seeing her in concert as well. I had listened to her just a little bit before Thursday night but hearing her perform live was a much better way to get introduced to her and her music. Not only does she have a beautiful voice but she’s super sweet in person. I made a new friend at the concert on Thursday (one I had known from Twitter and finally met IRL) and we hung around after the show and talked with Kelsey. He’s known Kelsey for a while- they’re from the same part of Kentucky and he’s somewhat related to her. The three of us had a nice chat that included talking about Margo Price and Buffalo Clover.

All around, Thursday night was a great time and I’m so glad that I made the last minute decision to go. You can bet that next time either of these two comes through the DMV that I’ll be there. I’ll also make sure to buy my ticket early next time so that I don’t wind up paying an arm and a leg to see them!

I’ll conclude this post with one final thought- KENTUCKY! This state just keeps on cranking them out- Chris Stapleton, Angaleena Presley, Sturgill Simpson, Tyler Childers, Kelsey Waldon plus the classics like Keith Whitley, the Judds (so many redheads!), and Loretta Lynn. The latest Oxford American magazine was even dedicated to Kentucky and featured some fantastic articles, especially the one on Sturgill Simpson by Leesa Cross-Smith titled, “Ain’t Half Bad,” which is a reference to Sturgill’s song “You Can Have the Crown.” I found myself agreeing so strongly with a lot of her article and it felt good to know that someone shared my opinions on Sturgill.

To celebrate, I created a Spotify playlist, “Kentucky Got Lucky.” This playlist features all of the great Kentuckians listed above along with songs that just remind me of Kentucky. Also, it has NAPPY ROOTS! (Throwback to my youth!) I only wish Sunday Valley (Sturgill’s old band) and the Food Stamps (Tyler’s old band) were available to stream so that I could add them to this playlist. You can find that playlist here.

Currently listening to: All of the wonderful sounds of Kentucky!

Ladies Love Outlaw Music Festivals

Shotgun Willie, Shot of Espresso Brittany

This morning, for the first time in my life, I ordered an extra shot in my (venti!) Americano at Starbucks. The reason why? I didn’t get home until almost 1:30am last night after driving home from the Outlaw Music Festival in Camden, New Jersey and I had to drag my butt to work this morning. But was it worth it? You bet!

I had been wanting to go to this concert for weeks (maybe even months) after seeing the lineup. I mean, Eric Church AND Willie Nelson. Plus Sheryl Crow, who I’ve been listening to since the nineties. I’ve also been writing about Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats on the blog lately so figured getting to see them live would be cool as well. And I know a few songs from The Avett Brothers and my friends have told me they’re great live. I figured with this many quality acts in the lineup, I couldn’t go wrong. Despite wanting to go for so long, I actually bought my ticket very last minute, like the day before. I was hoping one of my friends would decide to come along but after many desperate pleas (including on social media), I gave up. And you know what? Going solo was fine (I’ll get into this more at the end of the post.)

Like Father, Like Sons

Particle Kid was the first act at the festival. And of course, since I’m early to everything, I was there before he even went on, which meant I got to watch his entire set, which was only like 30 minutes. He sang some weird songs, which he even admitted to. I was wondering why he was included in an “outlaw” music festival as nothing about him really screamed “outlaw” or even “country.” I later found out, during Willie’s set, that Particle Kid is Willie’s Kid (his son, Micah). When they advertize “Willie Nelson AND Family” that’s the family they’re talking about.

Particle Kid wasn’t the only son of Willie’s performing at the festival as Lukas Nelson was also in the lineup. Once again, I did not realize that he was Willie’s son, though this one should have been a little more obvious from the last name and the amazing locks of hair. Oops. Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real were the second act and they were really good.  He even got the crowd (or at least what was there of it at that point) to sing along to “Find Yourself.” Lukas made the crowd laugh by talking about an ex-girlfriend of his named Georgia and how he has to play “Georgia On My Mind” with his dad every night and how that’s a bitch of a situation. That same girl led to him to write the song “[Forget About] Georgia,” which he played right after telling that story. He even played guitar with his teeth at one point- I didn’t even know that was possible! This kid isn’t just riding on his dad’s name- he’s a talent in his own right with a powerful voice and great guitar playing skills. I was impressed!

Both Micah and Lukas joined Willie on stage during his set at the end of the night and played with him throughout its entirety. I was wondering why they called it “Willie Nelson and Family.” Well now I know.

Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats Sweating it Out in the Day

I’ve written about Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats on this blog a couple of times now. Though I don’t consider them country, and they’re definitely not outlaws, I think they have a unique sound and deserve recognition. The variety of instruments that the Night Sweats use is impressive in and of itself. In a world where music is so often done on a soundboard and is so overproduced, it’s nice to see musicians playing actual instruments, like the saxophone. I was happy that they played the three songs of theirs that I really like- “Look It Here,” “I Need Never Get Old,” and “S.O.B.” – the latter being a big hit with the crowd, myself included.

Nathaniel Rateliff and Some of the Night Sweats. (My camera takes horrible pictures apparently.)

Brothers in the City of Brotherly Love

Micah and Lukas weren’t the only brothers who got to perform together at the Outlaw Music Festival. Brothers Scott and Seth Avett a.k.a The Avett Brothers were next in the lineup, along with bandmates Bob Crawford and Joe Kwon on cello. They started off by singing “Clay Pigeons” – a Blaze Foley song that I recognized from the John Prine cover. That wasn’t the only classic country song they covered as they also did George Jones’ (and apparently also The Grateful Dead’s?) “The Race Is On,” which was also covered by Sawyer Brown in 1989 and is the version I’m most familiar with. I actually enjoyed watching them- I think both of the brothers are great singers and they even sang my favorite song of theirs, “Live and Die.” I was, however, a little disappointed that they didn’t sing “I and Love and You,” which is probably their most popular song. I think the crowd at the Outlaw Music Festival would’ve been way more receptive of that song than the one they did where they rapped.

If a Sheryl Crow Concert Makes You Happy, It Can’t Be That Bad

In her set, Sheryl Crow sang some of her new stuff that the crowd and myself were unfamiliar with. But she didn’t disappoint because she still did all of her classics. I’m talking about “Strong Enough,” “If It Makes You Happy,” “My Favorite Mistake,” and “All I Wanna Do.” You remember those songs from the radio back in the ’90s, right? I know I sure do. In fact, she was probably the artist there that I have my oldest memory of. I’m not sure what my first Willie memory is but my I can remember Sheryl Crow’s music from when I was a kid. After twenty years of listening to her, it was pretty cool to see her live. Including acts like Sheryl Crow in the festival meant that I got to see people that I probably wouldn’t have paid to see on their own.

Lukas Nelson made another appearance during Sheryl’s set, coming out to help her play “Midnight Rider” by The Allman Brothers Band. Lukas definitely has the voice to sing that song!

Sundays Are For Church

I bet you guys thought you’d never see it but I actually went to Church on a Sunday!

This was my seventh time seeing Eric Church in concert and my first time seeing him perform an entire set acoustic style. It was just Eric and some guitars- no Joanna, Craig, Jeff, Jeff #2, Driver, or Lee. Just Eric. He started off his set with “Mistress Named Music”-  THE SAME VERSION THAT HE DID AT RED ROCKS! (Sorry for yelling!) A.K.A. the “Mistress Named Music-Red Rocks Medley” that I wrote about here complete with Bob Seger, Loggins and Messina, Little Feat, Billy Joel, and George Strait worked into the middle of it. Getting to witness that was worth the ticket price, the price to park, the gas, the drive, and the overpriced food and drinks alone!

Since Camden, NJ is practically Philly, he did Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” before jumping into “Springsteen.” I had hoped that he would play this song since we were in Philly and since he always plays a song from The Boss before “Springsteen.” Well, my wish came true!

I would also like to point out, especially for people who think I’m an obsessed Eric Church fan, that I probably saw some of the biggest Eric Church fans ever at the show last night. One woman had his face (from the Chief album cover) tattooed on her back shoulder. If there were a competition for the craziest thing a fan has done, I think getting a tattoo of someone’s face is a good contender for winning it. I can understand getting song lyrics, which I think this woman also had, but someone’s face is on another level. There were also people there who had seen him the night before in Alabama and came all the way to Philly to see him again. According to their sign, they saw him three nights in a row, so Tuscaloosa and Orange Beach, Alabama (or as Eric likes to call it LA- Lower Alabama.) I might’ve driven from Falls Church, VA to Camden, NJ but the people who drove from LA (remember, that’s Lower Alabama) to Camden have definitely got me beat!

Despite it being an acoustic performance, Eric made sure to include all of the Church Choir’s favorite things about his live shows into last night’s performance (many of which I wrote about in my post, “A View from the Church Pew.”) People held up their boots during “These Boots,” he took shots of Jack from the mini bottles that fans brought for him after singing “Jack Daniels,” and he messed up his own songs.

I will say that I was disappointed that he didn’t sing “Leave My Willie Alone.” This would have been the perfect opportunity for it! At least he sang “Record Year,” which references the Red Headed Stranger.


Having a Willie Good Time

Willie Nelson and Trigger- the guitar that’s been with him since 1969!


Excuse me while I go put a checkmark in the box beside Willie Nelson‘s name on my country concerts bucket list. If you want to see a musical legend, and I’m not just talking about a legend in country music, but a legend in all genres of music, then look no further than Willie Nelson.

His set included a song for Waylon, “Good Hearted Woman,” and a song for Merle, “It’s All Going to Pot.” He also sang some of my favorite Willie classics like “Always on My Mind” and “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground.” He also played “Georgia On My Mind” and everyone who was there for Lukas’ set remembered the story about his ex and started laughing at the displeased face he made when they started playing.

For an eighty-four year old, Willie has still got it. As he sings in “Still Not Dead“:

“I run up and down the road and makin’ music as I go
They say my pace would kill a normal man
But I’ve never been accused of bein’ normal anyway
And I woke up still not dead again today”

You got that right, Willie!

As I previously mentioned, his sons Micah and Lukas also joined him on stage for his set, playing guitar and other instruments and singing. Since this was a “Willie Nelson and Family” affair, Bobbie Nelson, who Willie calls “Little Sister” also joined in on piano. While he may call her “Little Sister,” she’s actually two years older than him and yes, she’s biological sister. I guess “Big Sister” just doesn’t have the same ring? Bobbie was also recently inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame. (Congratulations, Bobbie!) One thing I would like to say is that the Nelson family has got some good genetics when it comes to hair!

There’s still one other family member who was up on that stage with Willie that I haven’t mentioned yet and that’s Trigger. Trigger is Willie’s guitar that he’s had since 1969. As Willie says, “Trigger’s like me, old and beat-up.” I don’t know anything about guitars but this one is a Martin N-20 acoustic and if it’s the one Willie has been using for the past 48 years, then it must be a good one. He’s named after Roy Rogers’ horse Trigger because as Willie says, “it’s kind of my horse.” One time, when Willie’s house caught on fire, he ran inside and two saved things: a pound of weed and Trigger. If you wanna learn more about good ole Trigger, there’s a Rolling Stone exclusive documentary about him here.

At the very end of Willie’s set, The Avett Brothers and Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats joined him on stage. They got the whole pavilion to join them in singing “I’ll Fly Away.” If I tell people that I got to sing with Willie Nelson it wouldn’t be a lie!

A poor quality video of Willie singing part of “Always On My Mind” is below. Look at how close I was!


Let’s Get Political (sung to the tune of Olivia Newton John’s “Physical”) 

Maybe it’s the times we live in but I feel like that kid in the “The Sixth Sense” these days except I see political messages. That’s not a complaint because I think it’s important for artists to speak out and use their microphones for good. The first political message that stood out to me at the festival was in The Avett Brothers’ “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full Of Promise,” especially in the following lines:

“There’s a darkness upon me that’s flooded in light
In the fine print they tell me what’s wrong and what’s right
And it comes in black and it comes in white
And I’m frightened by those that don’t see it

When nothing is owed or deserved or expected
And your life doesn’t change by the man that’s elected
If you’re loved by someone, you’re never rejected
Decide what to be and go be it”

It’s not just the lyrics, as they were definitely not written for the Orangutan in Office, since the song is from 2009 but it was the hand motions that Seth made when he sang that line about the man that’s elected. You know the hand gesture someone makes to indicate that someone talks too much where flap your four fingers against your thumb. Maybe it’s just me but I saw this as a reference to Trump since the man does talk way too much.

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(Hand gesture referenced above)

Not only that but Willie Nelson’s “Living in the Promiseland,” which he sang with The Avett Brothers and Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, has some pretty relevant lyrics to the political times we have found ourselves in (see the lyrics below). The music video for this song starts off with an old news story in black and white about refugees, victims of Nazi persecution, arriving from Europe by boat. As the video points out, many of the children are orphans. As Willie starts to sing, with an American flag bandana on his head of course, images of a diverse array of Americans appear throughout the video. Including this song on the setlist each night of the Outlaw Music Festival seems like a way of getting a message out about refugees and immigrants. Especially when you take into consideration Willie’s own politics. He spoke about this song in an interview from January of this year saying, “I recorded a song called ‘Living in the Promiseland.’…It’s about welcoming everyone: ‘Living in the promiseland, our dreams are made of steel. The prayer of every man is to know how freedom feels. Bring us your foreign songs, we will sing along. …’ Come on, America. We love you. We’ll help you. We’ll find a spot for you.” And when asked, “so you’re not for building walls?” Willie responded with “Fuck no.”  I won’t get too much more into politics now since this is a concert review so I’ll save my thoughts on this subject for a another time.

“Give us your tired and weak
And we will make them strong
Bring us your foreign songs
And we will sing along

Leave us your broken dreams
We’ll give them time to mend
There’s still a lot of love
Living in the Promiseland”

Also, whatever happened to the “Willie Nelson for President” campaign? That’s a serious question. If anyone knows what the status of this is, please let me know.

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Merch

With so many great artists, and merchandise available for each of them, my poor wallet definitely took a hit. I got an Eric Church t-shirt that I had been thinking about for a while and since I know for a fact that it’s not for sale on his website, I decided to go for it. It’s the “Eric Fucking Church” t-shirt. Yes, I realize this is the second shirt I’ve bought in the past few weeks that has the f-word on it (the other one being my “Who The Fuck Is Sturgill Simpson?” t-shirt). No, I do not care.  Nor do I give a fuck. I also got a Willie Nelson t-shirt since I couldn’t not. A poster for the show and an Eric Church koozy also made the (figurative) shopping cart.

Ridin’ Solo

What was unique about this experience was that it was the first concert I’ve ever done solo. And I didn’t just do a concert solo, I did a whole daylong festival solo. Plus the drive to and from Philly all by my lonesome. And you know what? It was actually kinda fun. Thankfully I sat next to some cool people and they obviously had great taste in music so we had a lot to talk about. I walked away from the festival having learned an important lesson- don’t be afraid to do things by yourself. In fact, every once in a while, do something like going to a concert alone. If you really wanna see a performance, seeing it alone won’t make it any less enjoyable. And it’s good to spend time alone for personal development. It also forces you to meet new people.

The Pit or Bust

This was also my first time sitting in The Pit. Like I’ve never been that close to a stage at a major concert in my life. Sure, I might’ve paid a pretty penny for my seat but if you think about how much a pit seat would be to see each of those artists separately, it was a bargain! After getting to see this show up close and personal, I don’t know if I can go back to nosebleed seats.

 

If you guys ever get a chance to attend an Outlaw Music Festival, I highly recommend it. Also, take me with you! Or you can just do like I did and go alone. Either way you’ll have a Willie great time!

AND if you’re interested, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real will be coming to the DMV area in November, performing at Rams Head Live in Baltimore on Wednesday, November 15th. Get your tickets here.

Currently listening to: Waylon Jennings- “Ladies Love Outlaws.” Oh yes, they do! This song is also the inspiration behind this post’s title, if you were wondering.