REVIEW: Jason Isbell @ The Township Auditorium

img_0048 By: Kyle Petersen

When Jason Isbell took the stage at the Township Auditorium this past Sunday, I wanted to tell you that it felt a little weird, mixed with a little sense of triumph. As if this was the apotheosis of the hard-touring rock ‘n’ roll musician done good, a story that countless musicians toiling in tour vans day in and day out could look up to and aspire to. I wish I could say that.

But the reality is, over the last few years Isbell seems to have matured seamlessly from seedy 300-person rock clubs to stately 3,000 seater auditoriums, and it felt surprisingly inevitable. Four years into sobriety and three years removed from the breakthrough success of 2013’s Southeastern, Isbell looked trim and dapper on stage, carrying himself with the air of a consummate, perhaps even slightly bored, professional. That’s not to say that the performance wasn’t amazing—after all, he is undisputedly one of the preeminent songwriters of his generation, with the kind of hotshot guitar skills and booming, soulful voice that would allow him to get away with songs as tenth as good. As he generally does these days, Isbell opened with a salvo of electric rock songs (including the old Drive-by Trucker Southern rock staple “Decoration Day” and the 2016 Americana Music Awards “Song of the Year” winner “24 Frames”) before switching to acoustic guitar and diving deep into his last two more songwriting-oriented efforts. The fact that the set is loaded with stunners (“Speed Trap Town,” “Cover Me Up,” “Alabama Pines”) helps, along with the fact that Isbell is at this point adept at balancing the more somber acoustic tunes with more sprightly ones like “Codeine” or “If It Takes a Lifetime.”


Still, there were relatively few moments or features that genuinely stuck out thanks to the unerring professional consistency. One notable element for sure, though, was the elegant, top-notch staging and lighting, a new feature for longtime Isbell fans. Backed by pseudo-stained glass windows and often bathed in multiple spotlights when he stepped out to take a solo, there was an element of grandeur to the proceedings which felt wholly new. Another great moment was the knowing inclusion of “Palmetto Rose,” a welcome nod to the audience with its South Carolina subject matter. And, ever so slightly, the genuine joy the bandleader seemed to take in the ostentatious stage interplay he had briefly with keyboard/accordionist Derry DeBorja on "Codeine" and then, later, with guitarist (and SC native) Sadler Vaden during a staged-but-electrifying guitar duel. That latter moment, which took place during an extended take on the gnarly and riveting “Never Gonna Change,” felt like the most significant addition to the band’s live show and allowed them to end the regular set with a bang.

Perhaps the most telling moment, though, was when Isbell brought opener (and contemporary) Josh Ritter out during the encore to cover John Prine’s “Storm Windows.” Isbell briefly mentioned that he used to pay to go to Ritter’s show rather than bringing him on tour, an oblique reference to his newfound stature, but really it was the cover choice itself, along with the “Prine/Isbell” campaign ticket shirts at the merch table, that suggested the songwriter’s intended route in the coming decades. Having arrived at the upper echelon of the music world on his own terms and on the strength of his artistry, Isbell clearly intends to stay on that level with the consistency and persistence of his 70-year-old forbear.

And, judging by Sunday night's show, that shouldn't be a problem.

Shaky Knees Festival Preview May 9-11

sk_logo1 We here at Jasper had our eye on Shaky Knees Festival last year when it launched in downtown Atlanta—for rock fans, it was a nice mix of marquee indie talent mixed with a host of accessible names all the way down the bill, and for a decent sticker price ($99 for a two-day ticket). By all reports, last year’s effort, despite colder-than-expected temperatures and a rainy Saturday, was largely a success, a well-planned event that sold out by Sunday afternoon. That, it seems, was enough to embolden the organizers to up the ante.

This year the festival expands to three days and moves to a new location—Atlantic Station—to  accommodate a much larger crowd and a serious line-up that is anchored by such beloved (and commercially successful) indie rock bands as Modest Mouse, The National, and Alabama Shakes.

Those names alone made the advance 3-day pass (at $150) quite the steal and, although those have now sold out, 1-day passes are still available for $85 a pop, and each day features some high-quality acts that, along with the day's headliner, make for a great day or two of music-seeing for any serious fan. We'd like to highlight a few of the supporting acts each day who we think make this year's festival such a draw.

Friday – Headliner: The National

Charles Bradley & his Extraordinaires @ 4:00pm

Bradley is a James Brown impersonator-turned-retro soul revival leader who dropped his first album at the ripe age of 62. Since then, he and his Menahan Street Band collaborators have wowed audiences with their vintage sound and Bradley’s emotionally charged performances which take the theatrics of Brown and fuse them with something even more powerful and harrowing. The man has to be seen to be believed, but curious fans should check out the documentary on the singer available on Netflix, Soul of America.

Spoon @ 8:00pm

These well know rock and roll soul minimalists could probably have swapped headlining spots with The National without much of a fuss, given that their tight-pocket grooves and elegantly simple pop hooks are practically direct-engineered to get a large festival crowd grooving and swaying.

Other Friday Acts: American Aquarium, Mutual Benefit, Blood Red Shoes, Sleeper Agent, Wild Belle, The Whigs, White Denim, Bright Light Social Hour, Band of Skulls, Man Man, Dropkick Murphys, Foals, The Airborne Toxic Event, Graveyard, Cage the Elephant, & Gaslight Anthem

Saturday – Headliner: Modest Mouse

Hayes Carll @ 2:15pm

One of several under-the-radar alt-country talents on the festival’s line-up, Carll writes in the finest traditions of the Texas troubadour, crafting clever honky-tonk rambles and wizened and heartbroken ballads with aplomb. With a near-literary eye for detail in his character sketches and elegantly wrought metaphors, Carll is just the kind of singer/songwriter to check out early into a festival day.

The Replacements @ 8:00pm

I’m actually more excited about this recently-reunited band of college rock ruffians than any other act at the festival. Although only frontman Paul Westerberg and bassist Tommy Stinson remain of the original members, this is still a chance to hear an avalanche of classic tunes that formed much of the early canon of indie rock.

Other Saturday Acts: Wake Owl, Fly Golden Eagle, Packway Handle Band, Apache Relay, Gregory Alan Isakov, The Districts, Tokyo Police Club, Lone Huron, The Lone Below, Phox, Dawes, Portugal the Man, Cold War Kids, Houndmouth, Conor Oberst, and Jenny Lewis

Sunday – Headliner: Alabama Shakes

Jason Isbell @ 3:45pm

This former Drive-by Trucker doesn’t need much to sell him to Southern rock fans—he’s penned sprawling guitar brawl classics like “Decoration Day” and has the kind of soulful delivery that allows him to effortlessly cover both Van Morrison and The Band, so his ability to deliver a first-rate live show is never in doubt. With the release of last year’s Southeastern LP, though, Isbell has also firmly established himself as a songwriter of what could be timeless quality, with songs like “Elephant,” “Live Oak,” and “Cover Me Up” sounding damn near like classics that will still be in circulation among songwriters generations from now.

Violent Femmes @7:45pm

Although far more of a cult band than even The Replacements, Violent Femmes were also a hugely influential band that also boasts their fair share of counter-canon classics, none more so than the over-played (but still awesome) “Blister in the Sun.” Their set is worth it to hear thousands of fans shout these zany lyrics together in unison. It will likely be the kind of pure musical moment that you can only get in a festival setting.

Other Sunday Acts: Benjamin Booker, Paperbird, San Fermin, Langhorne Slim & the Law, Mason Jennings, Deer Tick, The Weeks, Blitzen Trapper, Jackie Greene, Iron & Wine, Trampled by Turtles, The Hold Steady, Local Natives, Kopecky Family Band, and Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros

-K. Petersen