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.

Review: John Mellencamp at the Township Auditorium

720x405-20140922_mellencamp_x1401 For most of the 24 hours leading up to John “Cougar” Mellencamp’s performance last Tuesday at the Township Auditorium, I made jokes about his name change. You would think that the joke would be stale, given that now-legendary rock and roller dropped the manager-demanded stage moniker in 1991. But, somehow, it still seemed to suggest some critical distance, as if, even if I liked Mellencamp’s songs, I still recognized them as the fluffier, commercially friendly flip side of the alt-country underground that emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In truth, such a critical distance isn’t really necessary. Yes, Mellencamp had some rather dominant pop hits (“Hurt So Good,” “Cherry Bomb,” and “R.O.CK. in the U.S.A” among them) that felt like water-downed Springsteen, ready to be force-fed to an eager nation in the wake of Born in the USA’s mammoth sales, even if some of them preceded that blockbuster. But, by and large, Mellencamp wrote some of the best straight-forward roots-rockers of all-time, full of elegant small town details and genuine populist fervor, over the course of his career, and he's continued to write and record solid records, with 2014’s Plain Spoken greeted with critical if not commercial acclaim. Yes, he can come off as a poor man’s Springsteen, but really what he does is strip a lot of the excess from The Boss’s approach, writing with a keen sense of detail and little wasted in his spare lyrics. He arranges his songs similarly, balancing acoustic guitar and fiddle against understated electric guitars and organ with little in the way of soloing bombast or orchestral pretension. And I’ll be damned if the chorus to “Jack & Diane” isn’t the most perfect catchy-bleak-honest sentiment of any heartland rocker I’ve ever heard, Bruce be damned.

Plus, the whole Springsteen thing has probably followed him around enough as it is. If anything, generations of Americana singer/songwriters since the 1980s owe more to Mellencamp than he ever owed to his Jersey counterpart. Seriously, listen to folks like Ryan Bingham or Chris Knight and tell me they aren’t just pale imitations when you compare them to the real thing.

So how was the show you ask? Pretty good. Mellencamp opened with a couple of tunes from Plain Spoken as if to prove his songwriting hasn’t lost his step and each was full of his characteristic populist anger and cynical regret. He then proceeded to move smoothly between big hits and deeper cuts, keeping the crowd happy without devolving into pure nostalgia. His solid backing band was as unflashy as his recordings, with only violinist Miriam Sturm truly stepping out and showing off virtuosic chops. And although he was in fine vocal form throughout the evening, punctuating most every song with an energetic yelp or a holler, he seemed mostly bemused, as if he’s a cantankerous-yet-energetic young grandpa who is surprised to find himself surrounded by grandchildren given what a gruff he’s been throughout much of his life. The only time he addressed the crowd directly was to speak vaguely of history and aging, warning that “time is the only critic without an agenda” and delivering a cryptic parable about eating your eggs. It all felt vaguely like a performance Michael Keaton might riff on, Birdman-style, in the next few years.

While the hits might seem the obvious highlights (the acoustic “Jack & Diane,” replete with a gentle chiding of the karaoke crowd for prematurely jumping to the chorus, was genuinely moving), my favorite moments were on newer introspective ballads like “Longest Days” and “The Isolation of Mister” where Mellencamp’s weathered voice and wizened perspective were perfectly matched with the jaundiced philosophy of his earlier material. The other big surprise was when he went into full on Tom Waits-mode, playing up the cragginess of his voice as he sauntered around on stage with maniacal glee on bluesy romps like “The Full Catastrophe of Life.”

At the end of the day, a few people with me were still a bit bummed about some missed hits, but a set featuring “Small Town,” “Pink Houses,” “Cherry Bomb,” “The Authority Song,” and “Rain on the Scarecrow” can hardly be faulted for not giving the crowd what they wanted. For myself, I was just glad to see a legend who was still vital and creating new music while finding a comfortable way to please his audience and put on a good show. As we’ve too often seen, a 60-something rocker can do far, far worse. –Kyle Petersen

Live Music Review: Jack White @ The Township Auditorium

  Photo by David James Swason

It didn’t feel like a Wednesday night in Columbia.

The presence of rock superstar Jack White alone was enough to make things feel unusual, but you also had excellent competing shows at the Music Farm Columbia, Tin Roof, Foxfield Bar & Grille, and New Brookland Tavern. An embarrassment of riches for what is ordinarily considered an off music night in this town.

Alas, I was one of a few thousand who packed the sold-out Township Auditorium for a show that was practically championed as the show of the year before it even happened. Such is White’s reputation as a live performer, as well as his stature in the rock world.

Opener Olivia Jean kicked things off with a set that seemed straight out of the headliner’s playbook, blending a bit of high country twang and rock and roll boogie into a garage band setting. And while her more-than-capable backing band followed her down every turn, a muddled sound mix left most of the words lost in the shuffle for an audience unfamiliar with her material. Given that her new LP is due out on White’s Third Man Records soon, I might look back more kindly on this set in retrospect when I have a stronger sense of the songs. As it is, though, it felt like a band gliding on the personality and character of its frontwoman, and also like a collection of musicians who would make a damn fine Jack White cover band.

White of course is known for his love of quirks, antics, and gimmicks as much as he is for blazing hot garage-blues guitar work and Zeppelin-esque grooves. The show’s set made much of a specially-assembled blue curtain, old school television, and other vintage equipment set center stage. The color blue and the number three were the main motifs (White’s in his “blue” stage now, and the number is likely a reference to his record label), but mostly the stage menagerie blended into the background.

Because Jack White takes this s*** seriously. Backed by a five piece band hell bent on following their notoriously impulsive leader through the paces, White proved his live wire reputation by sliding in and out of songs in chaotic bursts of frenzied guitar work and only occasionally signaling to his band what he was doing. As has been his pattern of late, the show mixed songs from his two solo efforts with a fair smattering of White Stripes tunes, the odd cover or two, and some choice cuts from his work in The Raconteurs and Dead Weather, but it rarely seemed to matter to the audience, who were eating out of the palm of his hand.

Photo by David James Swason

While I can’t say I was entranced as the rest of the crowd—the quality of White’s singing in particular, which is easily the weakest of his considerable skills, varied over the course of the evening, and, as with the Stripes, the energy and bluster of the sound occasionally belied less-than-engaging material—it’s undeniable how spellbinding White is as a performer. Personal highlights included his blistering transformation of the Stripes tune “Little Room” into rock therapy writ large, the masterful rendition of Dick Dale’s “Misirlou,” and the faithful, elegantly wrought take on the acoustic “You’ve Got Her in Your Pocket.”

White’s band is also part of what makes these shows so good too—drummer Daru Jones, positioned stage right, embraced the physicality of Meg White’s drumming and demonstrated flagless energy, showmanship, and just the right level of chops for White’s material, and the interplay between Fats Kaplin on violin and Lillie Mae Rische on fiddle was as surprising as it was spectacular. And the entire ensemble was adept at capturing the luxurious interplay found on White’s solo efforts—opener “High Ball Stepper” and “Three Women” off Lazaretto as well as Blunderbuss’s “Missing Pieces”  all showcased the dynamic chemistry of the group.

Fitting for a rock show of such proportions, most audience members left the show with their ears ringing and their throats sore, as White took arguably his two biggest hits—“Steady As She Goes” and “Seven Nation Army”—out for the full rock star spin, coaxing the audience to sing along and building each to a fury that transcended their recorded incarnations.

As I was leaving the auditorium, basking in the warm ear-ringing of rock and roll excess, I heard a number of still-dumbstruck audience members still sing-shouting the riff from “Army.” It seemed appropriate, as White’s signature tune has become nothing more than a clarion call for the survival of rock and roll.

Last night, at least, that call was answered.


In Jasper Vol. 3, No. 4: Motherboards + Matrixes: A Look at Runaway Runway designer Jesse Cody

"Artist, photographer, and veteran Runaway Runway designer Jesse Cody, 23, knows who her favorite artist is: it depends on when you ask her. 'Ask me when I wake up--it's Rene Magritte,' says Cody, comfortable in a faded Punisher movie t-shirt. 'Lunch time rolls around--it's Ryan Murphy. The sun starts to go down--it's Marilyn Manson.' 'But you know, I can't say that I can think of any one artist that has influenced my work,' says Cody, motioning towards the remnants of her Runaway Runway 2012 design. 'I believe it is, like most of my work, the love child of any and all artists in my mind, including myself.' ..." - Giesela Lubecke

For the full article and photos, click through the screenshot below:

Motherboards Screenshot

Live Music Review: Jonny Lang & Buddy Guy @ The Township Auditorium

2014-02-08 20.53.41 As much as I love live music, I kind of get why people can get down on going to rock shows. It can often be a frustrating experience—a din of guitars and drums played by musicians who look like they don’t even like to be on stage, and vocals either inarticulately delivered or buried under the instrumental barrage. Even if the music is good, sometimes the experience isn’t.

That was not the case this past Saturday at the Township Auditorium.

In a warm-sounding auditorium that has booked a slew of blues-inspired guitar slingers of late (Warren Haynes’ Gov’t Mule project played just a few days earlier, and the Tedeschi Trucks Band headlined in mid-January) Jonny Lang and Buddy Guy performed in the grand tradition of bluesmen who know what it means to put on a show.

jonny lang

Jonny Lang, more than 40 years Guy’s junior, rightfully opened up the evening. Lang has been a guitar protégé since his teens, releasing his smash debut Lie to Me at 16 and, following a stint in rehab in his early 20s and a slew of questionable releases in the aftermath of that experience, returned to form on last year’s Fight for My Soul release. Lang’s guitar chops were never in question as he roamed the front of the stage repeatedly to give everybody a taste of his lightning fast shredding, even if he still suffers a bit from the selection subpar material. More importantly, though, he probably won the crowd over even after the guitar-awe died down with the fact that, despite wreaking of the blues, Lang and his deep-grooving four piece backing band tend to end up more in soul and gospel territory than a standard 12 bar. He’s truly underrated a singer—there were moments where the band got quiet and he showed surprisingly nuance for music that can too often get a little blustery, even scatting a bit with a falsetto that I didn’t even know he had. Ill-fated Macklemore haircut aside, it was also nice to see that his performance style seemed entirely genuine. He spent most of the evening with his eyes closed in unswerving ecstasy, almost as if conjuring up whatever faint connection he had to the legion of blind bluesmen who paved the way for the kind of music Lang now makes.


Following up Lang wouldn’t be easy for most, but I’m not sure if anybody has ever showed up Buddy Guy. At 77, I was a bit concerned that Guy’s prowess might have begun fading a bit, but I shouldn’t have been. With a remarkably similar line-up to Lang’s band, Guy delivered a set that not only demonstrated why he’s considered a primary influence on 60’s blues-guitar gods like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimi Hendrix, but also that his unique style of blending standard Chicago blues with noisier and more unpredictable elements is still fully intact. While he was in fine voice throughout the evening and seemed so comfortable in the role of bandleader and entertainer that his gravitas seemed to envelop the entire auditorium, it was some of his standard trademark tricks—playing long guitar solos while wandering deep into the crowd, suggestively (well, provocatively) playing his guitar with his, um, crotch area, and delivering up some ribald humor (“I came here tonight to play something so funky you can smell it!”) that were likely still the most memorable moments of the show. My only complaint is that the show ended a tad too soon for my tastes, and without Lang returning to the stage for some sort of collaboration.

2014-02-08 22.42.06

However, judging from the crowd’s mood upon leaving the venue, I can safely say that you should never pass on an opportunity to ever see these two performers if you can help it.  -Kyle Petersen