I spent last weekend at Shoalsfest in Florence, Alabama, followed by a trip to the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. While there is plenty of music news and interesting articles to report, I am going to delay them all for the next issue, as there is plenty to talk about here.
Shoalsfest is Jason Isbell’s festival. He’s from north Alabama, as is the Drive By Truckers and so many other musicians. The home of FAME studios, the Muscle Shoals sound was used in the 60s and 70s by everyone from the Stones to Aretha to Wilson Pickett. Not many of the people involved are still around, but if anything, the music scene is actually better there now than it was then (see DBT’s song “Buttholeville” about what it was like for a musician to actually grow up there). Now that Isbell is a legitimate star, this is one way he is giving back to his community. He had it in 2019 for the first time, of course couldn’t in 2020, and now had it back this year. So a friend and I decided to go check it out. It was a one-day event then and now it is a two-day event, with Isbell and his band closing both days.
The one act I did not see was Jason Ringenberg’s “Farmer Jason” kids act, which my friend had seen with his kids and was less than blown away by. I wouldn’t mind seeing Ringenberg, but I didn’t. The first day, I got there about halfway through Cedric Burnside’s set. It was fine. Like a lot of modern electric blues, I listen to Burnside and think that I want to listen to Lightnin’ Hopkins, I will go listen to Lightnin’ Hopkins. He’s certainly an excellent guitarist and brings that blues spirit. It just doesn’t move me a whole lot.
Amanda Shires came out for a solo set next. Of course, she is Isbell’s wife and while that has helped her career by making her well-known, she had a significant career long before she knew him. It was a quite excellent set. Isbell played guitar with her but otherwise, she had her own band, with her playing both guitar and fiddle, as well as singing. She did a number of songs off her most recent album To the Sunset and a few off her older albums. Real strong set. Would love to see her play again, with or without her husband.
The next act was a genuine treat. Candi Staton is now 81 years old. She is one of the last active musicians deeply tied to FAME. She brought the heat to her set. She is less known today than she should be. She had a huge hit in 1970 with a great cover of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man.” Lest one think the country and soul music have nothing in common, artists in both genres were constantly covering each other. Staton who had a hit with Mac Davis’ “In the Ghetto,” which was written in the studio with her. Elvis made the song his own, as weird as him playing that song remains. During this era, she was married to Clarence Carter and was a kind of second light to Aretha Franklin, often getting songs that didn’t work for the Queen. So she never quite the attention as a legend that she should. But she deserves it. I was reading about her after the show. Turns out she’s been married six times, including to….former Braves outfielder Otis Nixon! She’s 20 years older than Otis, but he always looked like he was 80. Anyway, that was super cool.
Staton was followed by Lucinda Williams who was…..terrible.
I am sorry to say that, but it is true. Some of this is that Lucinda’s health is very bad. She had a stroke last year and it was rough to see her. She can’t play the guitar. She can’t walk on her own. She can’t stand up on her own. Like, if you want to see Lucinda play, I would do it very soon. She lived very hard and is now 68 years old, going on 85. But even when Lucinda was in good physical shape, her live show was, uh, mixed at best. Her voice is in decline as well. She can still bring it at times and it is always fun to hear her play “Pineola” and “Drunken Angel” and “Righteously.” But her later albums aren’t very good, with long blues jams replacing her tight arrangements and to the point lyrics of the past. She has a good white blues-country band, but overall, it’s just not a very good performance.
After Lucinda came Isbell and The 400 Unit, including Amanda Shires. He and his band can play the hell out of those songs. It’s now a very tight crew that put on a good show. Played a lot of the songs off Reunions and then a smattering from the earlier albums including a nice version of “Goddamn Lonely Love” and a good cover of “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?” to close the show. But…well, more about this in a minute.
Day two threatened rain, but we managed to make it through. That day was based on Isbell getting some of his favorite 90s alt-country bands back together and it was that kind of day. A bit of nostalgia but a whole lot of rock and roll. Slobberbone is not a band I have thought much aobut in a long time. Incidentally, my brother knows the singer of that band in passing because he was friends with a woman the guy used to date. And my brother says he is a massive jerk and just can’t stand him because he treated her so badly. Well, I don’t guess that’s surprising. He definitely looks like he’s been ridden hard and put away wet, especially now that he is in his late 50s or whatever. But the band still rocked pretty hard and it was a solid set.
Then Centromatic came out. I’d seem them once before, opening for Isbell in their home town of Denton, Texas in 2008 or so. They were great live then, with Isbell sitting in on guitar. He sat in for this show too. Thing is, they had broken up nearly a decade ago. They had played a show or two together since then. Will Johnson has a decent solo career. The drummer produces albums now, including the last John Moreland album. The violinst/keyboardist shows up all over the place. But they aren’t really a band anymore. Which made the fact that they were absolutely fucking awesome all the more surprising. I mean, they sounded great. That was a very fine live show. How they still sounded that tight, I do not know. But it was the perfect combination of loud and less loud, of fast and slower songs, of solos and jamming together. Just fantastic. Great, great set. I hope they play together some more. Because I would pay real money to see that again.
This was then followed by my favorite band of all-time, the Drive By Truckers, in what my 18th DBT show. It was a ton of fun. Of course they are from the Shoals as well. So this was a great time for them. Patterson Hood’s father, David Hood, was the bass player in the FAME house band and is the last one living from that band. He came out and played bass on their cover of “Everybody Needs Love,” the Eddie Hinton song that David Hood played bass on back in the day. So that was pretty cool. Then the collaboration everyone was hoping for happened. Jason Isbell came out and not only played guitar on “Heathens,” but also played the one great song he never, never, never plays–“The Day John Henry Dies.” I have no idea why he does not play this song. It’s as good as “Outfit” or “Codeine” or “Elephant” or “If We Were Vampires.” Even when I saw him shortly after he left DBT he never played this brilliant song. I assume this was Hood’s request. But it was AMAZING to see this played live. And of course the rest of the set was a lot of fun too.
Then Isbell came out for the second night in a row to close it out. And….well…..he played almost the exact same set as the first night, saying the same things, and really it was like he was playing to a totally different crowd. Except he mostly wasn’t. It was the same crowd he played for the first night. Everyone was mighty confused by this. Why? If you are going to play the same set, why not just play the second night and close the whole festival? It was terrible. I mean, it just felt soulless. He has so many great songs. And he mixed it up a little bit. But it was 70% the same show. I was so frustrated and I was not alone. In fact, we just left, even knowing that there would be some DBT collaboration and in fact Hood and Cooley came out to play guitar on “Outfit” and “Decoration Day” to close the set.
The reality is that Isbell simply is an inconsistent live act who is more comfortable just playing the same songs than taking any risks. I’ve seen great shows and I’ve seen quite bad ones and that has had nothing to do with his pre or post-sobriety periods. It just depends on the night. DBT is a truly epic live act. Isbell….can be. But still, none of this makes any sense. Either mix the sets up or invite another of your friends to close out the first night and just play the second.
Oh yeah, had to visit Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ too. Did I finish this? Does the pope shit in the woods?
So, somewhat frustrated, though sated with food, we went up to Nashville the next day. Why? Oh, the Drive By Truckers were merely playing at the Ryman, the Mecca of American music venues. I’d been to the Ryman before, to see the Grand Ole Opry in all its weird complexity. But this? This was awesome. And it was one of the best DBT shows I’ve seen, even if it was the 19th. For one, they were pumped to play the Ryman. Second, Isbell came out and played “The Day John Henry Died” again! Still awesome to see! Third, they played a song for the first time in ten years–“The Boys from Alabama,” one of the somewhat forgotten songs on The Dirty South, part of the Buford Pusser trilogy. So that was just a special moment. Sounded real good too. But mostly, they just sounded great from stem to stern, playing great versions of “Uncle Frank” and “Thoughts and Prayers” and “Ramon Casiano” and their outstanding cover of Zevon’s “Play It All Night Long.” It was a reminder of the greatness that rock and roll can be, should be, and at its best will always be.
Myst Milano, Shapeshyfter
This is pretty interesting DIY queer hip-hop. The one thing I’d say though is that she really could use some real production. These beats are so basic and rudimentary that they get in the way more than accentuate her words. I get that this is the aesthetic. But I still don’t think it works that well. It’s also interesting to hear a lesbian hip-hop artist engage in the “bitches and hos” rhetoric of hip-hop sexist’s male norm. Of course, it has a very different context coming from a woman than from a dude. And the songs about a sexual partner dominating her suggests that she does get this. Anyway, fascinating and at least to my knowledge, little reviewed release. Think I saw a short piece about this on Bandcamp and decided to check it out. Glad I did.
Pardoner, Came Down Different
Very fine updating of 90s rock. Lots of Sonic Youth in here. Plenty of Dinosaur Jr. Some Yo La Tengo. More recently, a good bit of Parquet Courts. No, these guys aren’t reinventing rock and roll. But they are making some very very good rock and roll. If they wear their influences on their sleeve, well so did the Stones and Dylan. Good punkish guitar, maybe not tons of attention paid to lyrical quality, but they are good enough if you aren’t looking for profound statements.
Larry Ochs/Nels Cline/Gerald Cleaver, What Is To Be Done?
Oh now this is the good stuff here. If you like improvisational jazz by three of the masters of modern music, what is to be done is to buy this album. Cline is the most well-known in the rock world as one of the seminal guitarists of our time but Cleaver is every bit equal as a drummer and so is Ochs as a saxophonist. Just very fine and beautiful music.
Sunlief Rasmussen, Territorial Songs
Rasmussen is a Swedish composer who plays the recorder. This is a set of his compositions, heavy on the recorder and with various string ensembles, playing his pieces largely based on life on the Faroe Islands. Well, it’s an awful lot of recorder. It’s not that it isn’t pretty and sometimes interesting. It’s more that I just don’t enjoy it and certainly not for 72 minutes. The highlights of it are the string parts, where the recorder isn’t as dominant. I hesitate to even evaluate this like other albums because it’s just my dislike for this much recorder that is coming through. But it is what it is.
Sons of Kemet, Black to the Future
Pretty cool project among the many Shabaka Hutchings leads. Great bass throughout this. I find I like the various Hutchings projects more than loving them, which is fine. I’d be happy to own this album, though it would probably be listened to more in shuffle than as a whole. Although the band only has two sax players (including Hutchings) and two percussionists plus special guests on most of the songs, it has major ambition to tell the story of the African diaspora. Like many such projects, it’s hard to really follow through on that kind of ambition. The songs vary in quality and it certainly isn’t breaking any new ground sonically. But worst case scenario it’s good groove-jazz with political topics and that’s not a worst case scenario.
Julien Baker, Little Oblivions
Baker has obvious talent as a songwriter. And evidently she can really shred on guitar. She also seems to hate herself. That’s OK for an artist I guess, though it’s not so great for actual life. What holds me back from loving her music isn’t so much the self-hatred (though you don’t have to lacerate yourself for every mistake you make, it’s OK to fuck up!) as it is that it is so seared into the limited sonic template of the music. It’s one thing for your initial work to sound like prayers, but that quietness in the end has real limitations to your growth. So hopefully she does grow in her sound because the talent is unquestionable.
Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee
This is a good indie rock album, though I’m not sure it reaches of OMG THIS IS AMAZING attention it has gotten. Michelle Zauner is certainly a talented musician and this touches on most of your major themes of indie pop music in an effective way. It’s intentionally joyous, which I guess is a big switch from her earlier sadder music. I do mostly like it, but it doesn’t really break much new ground, there is definitely some reverting to cliches in the lyrics, and her voice does have some limitations. But whatever, I don’t want to be too negative here. She is proud of her joy, she has interesting things to say about her own heritage (she is half-Korean, despite her stage name), and a lot of it is pretty fun. Plus she’s from Eugene and doesn’t make hippie music, so she’s already sui generis in that world.
Indigo Sparke, Echo
A very nicely sung album. I guess that sounds like damning with faint praise, but it isn’t. It’s simply the first thing one notes when listening to it. Indigo Sparke knows how to sing. She’s a Sydney-based songwriter well immersed in the world of confessional songwriting. As a guitarist, she’s rudimentary. Well, no problem there, how different is that than half the other folk singers in the world? There’s an intensity to her lyrics that demands attention and that’s what folk singers require if they can’t really play the guitar. Produced by Adrienne Lenker of Big Thief, which makes a lot of sense since they share a similar aesthetic. I need to hear this a little more.
As always, this is an open thread for all things music and art and none things politics or disease.