Shows I’ve Seen: Jason Isbell & Chris Stapleton

Whew, it’s been awhile. I’ve had so many post ideas, but not enough head space to take them on. The past two months have been complicated and a little up in the air, to put it lightly.

Anyhow, Ani DiFranco, Part II will be posted eventually. I had the pleasure of seeing The Lone Bellow play with the Baltimore Symphony a couple of months ago, which was an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime show. Sarah Jarosz released a new album on Friday, which I’m itching to review. Robert Ellis, Lera Lynn, and Margaret Glaspy have also released new material I’ll be circling back to in the coming weeks/months/years – You know, however long it takes me to get my life straightened out. *insert begrudged emoji here*

In the meantime… Here is my review of a dual-headliner show that made me melt the minute it was announced.

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Jason Isbell & Chris Stapleton @ Merriweather Post Pavilion – Columbia, MD on 6/18/16

Act I: Jason

Jason. Freakin. Isbell. I saw you play in 2009, I believe it was, opening for Gov’t Mule. I bought your album and freaked out (in a good way) over how gritty, honest, and angst-ridden it was. Four years later, I rediscovered your music when I heard Southeastern, one of my favorite albums of all time. Several summers ago, I listened to this album for about 3 weeks straight during a particularly self-indulgent bout of existential angst. I used to say it made me want to wrap myself in an American flag and roll down a hill into a pyramid of empty PBR cans.

I guess that’s my version of gritty.

I’ve always thought of your songs as being more story-like than other artists. They’re so full of imagery, wit, and insight that sometimes I feel like I’m listening to Southern Gothic poetry set to music as opposed to country songs. Seeing you live, belting out these stories about who you are and where you came from, really brought that into perspective for me. And oh my, those slide solos! Nothing brings out the ache in a tale like a dueling slide outro.

The great thing about you, Jason is that you manage to take these archetypes of country – booze, women, the workin’ man – and turn them into something smarter and more poignant than a drunken tale of chugging too many Buds and getting in a brawl (although you do this very well in the song “Super 8.)

One minute, you’re singing the plight of the working man:

“When I get my reward, my work will all be done
And I will sit back in my chair beside the Father and the Son
No more holes to fill. And no more rocks to break
And no more loading boxes onto trucks for someone else’s sake”

The next minute, you’re singing the achingly beautiful song, “Cover Me Up,” about how your wife, fiddle player and renowned musician Amanda Shires, rescued you from your spiraling alcoholism by sending your drunk ass to rehab.

You’ve been sober ever since, and I appreciate the sentiment you expressed on stage as Amanda stood beside you, a twinkle in her eye and a fiddle in her hand.  You said “This is a song about my wife. She’s here tonight, but I play it for her at every show, even if she’s not there.”

“But I made it through, cause somebody knew I was meant for someone.”

Okay, I might have cried a little. To the total of two people probably reading this blog: Try watching this, and see if you don’t join me in this tear-fest.

“But home was a dream, one I’d never seen ’till you came along.”

Jason, you were perfect. I’m going to stop writing this like I’m talking to you, and instead try and narrate this experience like a normal person.

My one problem with this double Isbell-Stapleton bill? The venture into the Cult of Bro.

Act II: Stapleton:

Stapleton started packing major bro-cred ever since his duet with Justin Timberlake at the CMA’s went viral last year. Don’t get me wrong – this is GREAT for him. He’s been hanging in the Nashville scene for years, writing killer songs for other people and getting himself nominated for Grammys with my favorite bluegrass band, The Steeldrivers. “Traveller,” his first solo endeavor, is a phenomenal album full of great songs made even greater by his whiskey-tinged blues voice and haunting harmonies provided by his wife, Morgane. When they launched into their prolific version of “You Are My Sunshine,” the chills were real, and they were frigid.

I saw Chris live at the American Roots Festival in Raleigh, NC this past October, right before he blew up the charts. He was known more as a musician’s musician rather than a household name, and played during a crappy early afternoon time slot. Hardly anyone was in the audience except for crazy Stapleton-hipsters like myself. Let’s be real, y’all, “I liked him before he was cool.” I hate myself for saying that, and I hate myself even more for saying what I’m about to say, which is that I said that ironically. I’ve become such a dirty ole hipster that it’ll take slugging copious amounts of Bud with the fratbros to knock myself out of it.

Anyhow, turning the clock back to this show at Merriweather, the fratbros were clearly there for Stapleton. The Isbell-diehards were all in the seated section, tears streaming down their faces for all to see on the jumbotron. I hate myself once again for sounding like a snob, but the fratbros do not understand the genius that is Isbell. They don’t hear the prose and subtle wit that make up each masterpiece of a song. They like Stapleton because he sings about whiskey (God love him). I saw so many Bud-slugging, wifebeater-wearing, girlfriend’s ass-slapping good ‘ole bros that I thought I was at a Florida Georgia Line show. They knew every single line to those songs on “Traveller” and hollered harder with each subsequent reference to whiskey. I was very impressed by Stapleton’s rollicking electric versions of Steeldrivers songs. The fratbros did not know any of the words to these oldies, despite the ever-present whiskey references.

Okay, I’m done being a self-loathing snobby hipster. I’m going to actually talk about the music instead of the fans.

What impressed me the most about Stapleton is that he essentially performed as a country/blues/rock power-trio, plus his wife on harmony vocals. I never thought of him as a guitar player as much as I did a powerhouse singer and songwriter. The man can freakin’ PLAY, and he holds his own without a rhythm guitarist or keys player to back him up. The muscle lies in his skill as a guitarist just as much as it does in his voice or his songs. That man is a force to be reckoned with.

Verdict:

Show: A++++++ (Ralphie, go get yourself a Red Rider BB gun)

Fans: C (I had to wash my hair three times to get the Bud smell out of it)

Oh, oh, oh. After that bout of judgemental hipsterness I just spewed onto you, my two readers, I will now proceed to mount my feminist high-horse (though I won’t apologize for that!)

One of the things I love about the alt-country genre is the idea that you can mix the great parts of the past with the changing ideals and values of the future. We can love whoever we want and treat people with respect while still singing in the style (but not mindset) of people who may think otherwise.

Thank you, Jason and Chris, for your obvious respect, love, and appreciation for these strong, talented women that sing beside you. Both men made a point of expressing gratitude towards their partner during the show, and have spoken fervently in interviews about their strength and talent.

Partnership > Patriarchy.

P.S – Jason and Chris, will you please run on a Presidental ticket with the slogan “Make Country Music Great Again? Or better yet, Amanda and Morgane could run. Please and thank you.

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That’s all, folks! Stay tuned this week for my review of the new Sarah Jarosz album, Undercurrent,” and my experience at the upcoming American Acoustic Festival ft. Chris Thile!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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