by Julian Spivey
Elvis Costello and the Imposters kicked off the Hello Again tour at the Soundstage at Graceland in Memphis, Tenn. on Wednesday, Oct. 13 with a fantastic show that featured many of Costello’s classics, some deep cuts, stuff from his most recent album Hey Clockface (2020) and some new stuff that hasn’t yet been released.
The show began with “Big Tears,” which was a bonus track on the 1993 re-release of 1978’s This Year’s Model. What followed were mostly tracks from Costello’s career that I’m not remarkably familiar with or haven’t hears thus far at all. I have to say as much as I admire Costello I’m admittedly more of the “greatest hits” fan than a deep-diver, which I do hope to fix one day because I’m sure I’m missing a ton of great songs.
The first song that really got me into the show on Wednesday night was “No Flag,” which I thought was the best track on his 2020 release Hey Clockface, it’s just an all-around great rocker the like you don’t hear too much from Costello in his later career. The first of what I would consider his “greatest hits” was “Everyday I Write the Book,” off his 1983 album Punch the Clock. The arrangement of the song in concert was different from the recorded version, but I really dug it.
One of the wonderful things about seeing Costello right now is two of The Imposters on stage with him are in fact original members of his first and iconic backing group The Attractions: Pete Thomas on drums and Steve Nieve on keys. The only thing really differentiating The Imposters from The Attractions is Davey Faragher on bass. Charlie Sexton has joined The Imposters on guitar for at least the first part of the Hello Again tour. The Imposters were utterly amazing all evening long.
One of the highlights of the show was a song that I don’t believe was planned – someone from the audience shouted out “Stranger in the House,” which seemed to catch Costello by surprise, but he launched right into the song, which truly proves Costello can write a country song with the best of them when he wants.
It’s always hard to really make out lyrics to new songs you’re hearing for the first time at a live show so I can’t say a whole lot about the three songs that Costello debuted on the Soundstage at Graceland, but from the music alone I think they’re all going to be promising and I look forward to hearing recorded versions.
The second half of Costello’s performance was certainly my favorite of the concert as this is when most of his “greatest hits” or classics came in the set. From “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea,” off This Year’s Model, through the end of the show it was a lot of old school Costello jams like “Watching the Detectives,” “High Fidelity” and then the absolute perfect one-two punch of “Radio, Radio” and “Alison” back-to-back, which truly made for one of the all-time great 10 or so minutes of any concert I’ve ever attended as those are my two favorite Costello tracks. Judging on the reaction from the Soundstage at Graceland audience many felt this way about the second half of the set.
Costello ended his set with “Farewell, OK,” a song I’m not familiar with that doesn’t seem to be on an album yet, and “Newspaper Pane” from Hey Clockface. It was an interesting way to end the main set coming off “Radio, Radio” and “Alison” back-to-back, but we all knew he’d be returning to the stage for an encore.
The encore was a thrilling three-song performance of “This Year’s Girl,” “Pump It Up” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” that had the entire ground, which had sat for most of the evening, on their feet and rocking along. I genuinely enjoyed belting ‘Peace, Love and Understanding’ at the top of my lungs with a crowd full of people, even if it undoubtedly would’ve been better without having to do so with a protective mask on my face.
I’ve always found Costello to just be an absolute cool person and I’m happy to have had the opportunity to have seen him perform twice in concert now. Both times have been fun and memorable shows.
I write to you today on behalf of extraterrestrials in all galaxies and universes both near and far to share our gratitude for your Demi Lovato, pop singer extraordinaire and all-around good Homo sapien.
We read in your magazine of tumbling rocks about Lovato’s feeling that us extraterrestrials are offended by the term “alien.”
While some of us simply do not care, most of us, in fact, do view the term “alien” to be derogatory and a means to scare earthlings of our existence – of which is simply not necessary. Being greater and smarter beings than most earthlings trust me when I say we could have conquered and enslaved you centuries ago if we pleased, but only Homo sapiens have the capacity for that type of hatred and need for control.
I’m sure you have read in your books and publications and seen on your movie and television screens the cliché extraterrestrial phrase, “we come in peace.” We would indeed come in peace if we ever felt the need to come at all, which we do not. You have much unnecessary strife on your planet Earth and it’s a dying planet for many reasons, primarily your lack of belief in science.
It has come to our attention that many have laughed at Lovato for their kind words about this horrid slur some refer to us as, but I assure you Lovato is among the kindest of your kind.
We look forward to Lovato’s upcoming Peacock docuseries “Unidentified with Demi Lovato,” in which they explore what life there may be beyond Earth. While we do anticipate many laughs and inaccuracies with this series, we know their heart is in the right place.
Thank you for your time.
by Julian Spivey
“Austin City Limits,” the wonderful PBS music program out of Austin, Texas, premiered its 47th season on Saturday, Oct. 2 with country music singer-songwriters Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram and Jon Randall performing selections from their album The Marfa Tapes, one of the best releases of 2021 thus far.
The episode, which was taped in late April, was the first performance on the show since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020 and you could tell Lambert, Ingram and Randall were all thrilled to be performing music in front of a live (and masked), audience once again.
Lambert said on the program that the trio have been friends for more than 20 years (which means going back to her teenage years) and began getting together to write songs about six years ago. Their first foray into writing together led to “Tin Man” off Lambert’s critically-acclaimed 2016 album The Weight of These Wings, which would go on to win Song of the Year at the 2018 ACM Awards. A version recorded specifically for The Marfa Tapes appears on the trio’s album, as does the song “Tequila Does,” which they all wrote together that appeared on Lambert’s 2019 album Wildcard.
Both songs were performed on “Austin City Limits,” with an even different performance of “Tin Man” with Randall taking lead on the first verse.
The trio got to perform almost the entirety of The Marfa Tapes on ‘ACL,’ with the only two tracks from the 15-track album they didn’t get around to (or at least didn’t make the cut on the episode) being “Breaking a Heart” and “Homegrown Tomatoes,” which is likely the most fun song on the album but would’ve required some censoring of the “F-word” on the chorus by PBS.
The almost hour-long performance kicked off with “Two-Step Down to Texas,” a highly appropriate song to get the first performance back on “Austin City Limits” in more than a year started with. From that point Lambert, Ingram and Randall took turns on lead songs, as they do on their exquisite album, in what felt like an old-fashioned Saturday night guitar pull.
Lambert blew the audience away with leads on “In His Arms,” “Waxahachie” and “Ghost,” which is likely the best song on the entire album. The trio’s excellent three-part harmonies coming off nicely on the chorus of “In His Arms.”
Ingram took lead on the emotional “Anchor,” “I Don’t Like It” and “The Wind’s Just Gonna Blow.”
Randall’s finest performance on the show and on the album was “Amazing Grace (West Texas),” which could easily wind up on my year-end top 10 list (in addition to Lambert’s “Ghost”).
Other tracks that really energized the audience were “Am I Right or Amarillo” and “Geraldine.”
These three songwriters really mesh well together both when it comes to writing these terrific songs and performing live and I’d love to see another collaboration down the line, of course it may take some time to write this many great songs together again.
The rest of the 47th season of “Austin City Limits” will continue on your local PBS station on Saturday nights and feature such performers as Jade Bird and Dayglow (Oct. 9), Jon Batiste (Oct. 16), Sarah Jarosz and Billy Strings (Oct. 23), Brandy Clark and Charley Crockett (Oct. 30), Leon Bridges and Khruangbin (Nov. 6), Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Jackson Browne (Nov. 13) and Brittany Howard (Nov. 20).
by Julian Spivey
John Prine’s 1971 self-titled debut album is not only one of my all-time favorite albums, but also, I believe one of the most underrated albums of all-time and likely the greatest debut album of all-time.
Today is the 50th anniversary of the release of John Prine.
From Maywood, Ill. Prine learned how to play the guitar when he was 14, attended Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music and served a stint in the U.S. Army in West Germany. After his time in the Army, he returned to Chicago where he took a job as a mailman and spent his free-time writing songs and then performing them as a club performer. It was performing in these clubs where he caught the eye of two soon-to-be very famous men – film critic Roger Ebert who’d write a rave review of one of his shows for the Chicago Sun-Times and songwriter Kris Kristofferson, just breaking out with songs like “Me & Bobby McGee,” “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” and “For the Good Times.”
The raves from these men helped get Prine a record deal with Atlantic Records and John Prine would be released on Sept. 23, 1971.
Rolling Stone magazine would review the record with: “This is a very good first album by a very good songwriter. Good songwriters are on the rise, but John Prine is differently good. His work demands some time and thought from the listener – he’s not out to write pleasant tunes, he wants to arrest the cursory listener and get attention for some important things he has to say and, thankfully, he says them without falling into the common trap of writing with overtones of self-importance or smugness. His melodies are excellent.”
In 2012 Rolling Stone would rank John Prine as the 452nd greatest album of all-time on its list of the top 500, but in the updated list just eight years later in 2020 it would climb all the way to 149th.
The fact that John Prine, the album, and John Prine, the songwriter, have been held in such high esteem by the Americana music community over the last decade-plus likely led to the album’s reconsideration and there’s no doubt Prine has been a large impact on such stars of today like Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves, Sturgill Simpson and many others.
Here is a track-by-track look at John Prine …
1. Illegal Smile
“Illegal Smile” is an interesting way to get into your debut album. It starts out with this quintessential folk finger picking on the guitar before going into quick depression with the lyric: “when I woke up this mornin’/things were lookin’ bad/seemed like total silence was the only friend I had” and then quickly into “a bowl of oatmeal tried to stare me down and won” – the first display of Prine’s curious wit and wordplay on record. But our narrator has the key to escape reality – and the song goes into a chorus on what many listeners over the years believes to be a paean to marijuana. Prine at least once confessed the song wasn’t actually about smoking pot, telling Performing Songwriter “The song was not about smokin’ dope. It was more about how, ever since I was a child, I had this view of the world where I can find myself smiling at stuff nobody else was smiling at. But it was such a good anthem for dope smokers that I didn’t want to stop evert time I played it and make a disclaimer.” Smart move on his part. “Illegal Smile” is a nice way to enter John Prine. It’s nice and loose and followed by another nice and loose track before incredible seriousness takes way for a while.
2. Spanish Pipedream
“Spanish Pipedream,” which many will remember for the memorable chorus extolling listeners to blow up their televisions and throw away their newspapers, is fun and loose and tells the tale of a soldier meeting a stripper who gives him some of the best life advice you’ll ever hear. The song takes on a country twang with Leo LeBlanc’s nice pedal steel guitar playing throughout and certainly includes one of Prine’s most memorable choruses ever written. It makes for a great sing-along.
3. Hello in There
There are a few devastating masterpieces on John Prine that show Prine was a master lyricist and storyteller with empathy many years beyond his 24-years of age at the time of the album’s release and the “Hello in There” is the first example. “Hello in There” is the tale of an elderly couple lonely with retirement and their kids all having moved away or died in war. It begins with a beautiful 30-second guitar intro before getting into the couple’s story of their kids and then the desolation of the chorus: “Ya know that old trees just grow stronger/and old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day/old people just grow lonesome/waiting for someone to say, ‘hello in there, hello.’” It’s the specificity of the same old, same old life that just hits me like when the narrator calls up his old factory worker buddy and the only answer for “if he asks what’s knew” is “nothing, what’s with you, nothing much to do.” It’s a slice of life that rarely gets covered in music of any kind – the old and weary of this country who are just kind of wasting away and don’t have to do so – and it’s just mesmerizing to have come from someone younger than 25 years old. What’s truly amazing is Prine captures a similar feeling again on side two of his debut.
4. Sam Stone
I believe whole heartedly that “Hello in There” is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard, despite its incredible sadness, but it may not even be the most depressing track on side one of John Prine, as it’s immediately followed by “Sam Stone,” a tale of a war hero who comes home with a heroin addiction that ultimately ends his life. America was embroiled in the Vietnam War at the time of the release and “Sam Stone” is a stark tale of what was happening to so many of American’s fighting men when they returned home, often unpopular with fellow Americans for fighting in an unpopular war unwanted by many. It’s fitting that the track opens with a church-like organ from the legendary Bobby Emmons that really hits the dirge-like quality of the song. The final line of the chorus: “sweet songs never last too long on broken radios” will rip the heart right out of your chest. A Rolling Stone reader’s poll in 2014 ranked “Sam Stone” as the eighth saddest song of all-time (no. 1 on the list was Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven”).
“Paradise,” which is probably the countriest and certainly bluegrassiest track on John Prine, is quite possibly the best known track on Prine’s debut album. It’s a bit peppier than the two excellent tracks that precede it in “Hello in There” and “Sam Stone,” but still a downer when listening to the lyrics. “Paradise” tells the toll that strip mining for coal took on Appalachia and essentially ruined the homeland of his ancestors. But with the incredibly catchy chorus of “daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County/down by the Green River where Paradise lay/well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking/Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away” the pain of the story goes down a bit easier.
6. Pretty Good
“Pretty Good” isn’t a track I always listen to when spinning John Prine, but I think it’s placement as the final track on side one of the record is crucial for helping bring the listener out of the emotional spiral that was the previous tracks. “Pretty Good” gets back to some of Prine’s sly wit that he started the album off with in “Illegal Smile” and “Spanish Pipedream.” The lyric “pretty good, not bad, I can’t complain/but actually everything is just about the same” isn’t a bad way to go about living your life.
7. Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore
Side two of John Prine begins with “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” which makes for a great bumper sticker slogan (though I see “blow up your TV” from “Spanish Pipedream” more often on them), a witty protest anthem of nationalism or over-patriotism in the style of stuff like Woody Guthrie or early Bob Dylan may have written, but with a little more sarcasm included. It was a popular track amidst the Vietnam War. I’m not sure how relevant it’s been in much of the half-century since it’s release, but I do have to say it got quite a few spins and in-car shouts from me during the last President’s term in office.
8. Far From Me
“Far From Me” is the breakup track of John Prine and, boy, it’s just as heartbreaking as Prine’s tales of elder loneliness, drug-addled heroes and the loss of Americana. Prine puts himself in the narrator’s shoes waiting on a small-town waitress finishing up her shift and every little thing about him getting on her every nerve, despite not even trying. It’s the chorus that really tears me up: “and the sky is black and still now/on the hill where the angels sing/ain’t it funny how an old broken bottle/looks just like a diamond ring/but it’s far, far from me.” The absolute most devastating lyric in the song though is: “we used to laugh together/and we’d dance to any old song/well, ya know, she stills laughs with me/but she waits just a second too long.” The song is the perfect encapsulation of a relationship ending and knowing there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
9. Angel from Montgomery
“Angel from Montgomery” is likely the greatest song off John Prine, but most of the album could easily be considered a “greatest hits” of John Prine which mind-boggling for a debut record. On “Angel from Montgomery” Prine’s narrator is probably a middle-aged woman (though she refers to herself as “old”) wanting to escape a boring, monotonous life. Again, Prine was merely 24-years old when this album was released, and he was writing life stories decades ahead of his time and capturing these moments and feelings with the deftness of literature’s best. “Angel from Montgomery” has some of my all-time favorite lyrics ever written, especially “if dreams were lightning and thunder were desire/this old house would’ve burned down a long time ago.” This quote is hanging above the entrance to a local music venue in Little Rock, Stickyz Rock ‘N’ Roll Chicken Shack, and I absolutely love that. I also really appreciate the verse: “how the hell can a person go to work in the morning/then come home in the evening and have nothing to say?” The whole song captures this mood of tedium that makes you feel for this character who desperately wants a reprieve. I believe Prine’s version to be the definitive one, but Bonnie Raitt released a version on her 1974 album Streetlights, that many heard first and associate more with her.
10. Quiet Man
“Last Monday night I saw a fight between Wednesday and Thursday over Saturday night/Tuesday asked me what was going on, I said, ‘Sunday’s in the meadow and Friday’s in the corn.” I don’t have a damn clue what that means but it’s just so absolutely John Prine and I can’t help but smile when hearing it. As a writer I fully believe that sometimes other writers, especially songwriters or poets will just put words and phrases together because they sound fun or nice or beautiful together and I think “Quiet Man” may have been one of those moments for Prine. Maybe there’s some deep meaning there, but I don’t know that I really want to know it.
11. Donald and Lydia
“Donald and Lydia” is such an interestingly written song. It’s kind of written like a play where the playwright sets up the characters one by one and when Prine sings the song he begins each portrait of the characters with their name and then describes them to the audience. The titular characters are both lonely people seemingly meant for each other, but mostly just fantasize about loving each other. I’m honestly struggling to think of another song I’ve ever heard that’s set up quite like “Donald and Lydia.”
12. Six O’Clock News
From the first time I listened to John Prine when I was in college (more than a decade ago now) until recently when I feel it’s been surpassed by both “Angel from Montgomery” and “Hello in There” my favorite track was “Six O’Clock News,” which seems beloved by Prine fans, but not necessarily a go-to favorite of many. I think as a young twentysomething I was mostly drawn to the macabre, dark side of a tale of a young man who kills himself upon finding out he’s illegitimated. I still love the song – particularly Prine’s uber-twangy take on the vocals – but I think some of the more mature mastery of lyrics on those other songs have led to it falling backward a couple of spots. I’m not sure if the suicide is realistic, but the boy in the song was based on a neighborhood child friend of Prine’s who eventually found out who he thought was his oldest sister was, in fact, his mother.
13. Flashback Blues
“Flashback Blues” is a fun little ditty to end John Prine. There’s not a whole lot to be found about the song online, but in her original December 1971 review of the album for Rolling Stone Karin Berg said: “’Flashback Blues’ is an up-tempo farewell lament that’s a poetic tumble of keen nostalgia, insights to loneliness and isolation, the pain of seeing oneself in emotional nakedness and the running ahead of that pain – but it sometimes catches up.” Damn. Even when Prine’s up-tempo, it’s thought-provoking and a bit down. “Don’t you know that I hate to leave here/so long babe, I got the flashback blues” is a pretty great way to end one of the all-time greatest albums though.
by Julian Spivey
One of the greatest songwriters in the history of modern music, but specifically country music, Tom T. Hall died at 85 on Friday, August 20. Hall was nicknamed “The Storyteller,” as he was known for his prowess at writing songs that told a complete story from start to finish and weren’t your typical verse, verse, chorus, verse format.
10. “America the Ugly” (1970)
This tenth spot on this list is interchangeable for me. It could change depending on the day, but today I’m feeling 1970’s “America the Ugly” because it still feels so relevant today. “America the Ugly” proves that Hall wasn’t against making a point in his songwriting as it tells the story of a photographer from a foreign land who comes to capture the realities of America, including poor people and hungry children, and elderly given up on by later generations. I just wish it wasn’t relevant today.
9. “I Love” (1973)
This one is just precious. “I Love,” which was Hall’s only crossover hit (as a performer) onto the Billboard Top 40 getting all the way to No. 12 in 1973, is just about loving the simple things in life. It’s so sweet it would be saccharine if most attempted it, but there’s enough sly humor in it to make it work for me – I’m talking about the squirrel line. There’s no rhyme there. I just love that he throws squirrels in randomly. It was a no. 1 on the country charts, one of seven in his career as a performer.
8. “Faster Horses (The Cowboy and the Poet)” (1975)
Sometimes in Hall’s best songs he puts a writer or performer in conversation with a regular Joe, in the case of “Faster Horses (The Cowboy and the Poet)” it’s an old cowboy, who departs wise wisdom on the writer/performer. In this song a young, idyllic poet encounters a hard-worn cowboy at a bar, who tells him there’s only four things in life worth a damn: faster horses, younger women, older whiskey and more money. The poet says he doesn’t have any interest in those things and is called out for being a liar. By the end of the song the poet has realized there’s an awful lot of truth in what the old cowboy has to say.
7. “A Week in a County Jail” (1969)
In perhaps Hall’s most humorous tune, “A Week in a County Jail,” his first no. 1 as a performer in 1969, the protagonist is pulled over in a small town for speeding and must spend time in a jail cell until a judge can lay down the law. It takes a full week, and our narrator is forced to spend his time eating hot bologna, eggs and gravy and making eyes at the jailer’s wife.
6. “Tulsa Telephone Book” (1971)
I probably heard “Tulsa Telephone Book” for the first time less than a year ago thanks to randomly hearing it on a local radio station that lets DJs play whatever they want. The song, off 1971’s In Search of a Song, was never released as a single – so it’s my favorite Hall deep cut. “Tulsa Telephone Book” tells of a man who’s had a one night stand and only knows the woman’s first name, but desperately wants to see her again so he’s read through the Tulsa telephone book 13 times without any luck. It’s such a great idea for a song, while being both catchy and having a wry sense of humor.
5. “The Year Clayton Delaney Died” (1971)
“The Year Clayton Delaney Died” is probably Hall’s most known hit as a performer – of course he wrote “Harper Valley P.T.A.” which Jeannie C. Riley topped both the country charts and the Billboard Hot 100 in 1968 – which tells the story of a guitar picker who liked his booze and wasn’t a parent’s idea of a good role model and how he taught the song’s narrator had to play guitar (and drink booze). The song was inspired by Hall’s boyhood hero Lonnie Easterly. “The Year Clayton Delaney Died” was a no. 1 country hit in 1971 and I have to wonder if it inspired the similarly themed “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” by Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1974.
4. “That’s How I Got to Memphis” (1968)
“That’s How I Got to Memphis” is the Tom T. Hall song that’s been in my head ever since the moment I learned of Hall’s passing on Friday. It’s just a perfect song. “That’s How I Got to Memphis” tells the story of a man’s search for his lost love, who’s doesn’t want to be found, and how he followed her trail to Memphis. Hall didn’t release the song as a single, but a version recorded by Bobby Bare in 1970 hit no. 3 on the country chart. The song was also memorably performed on the series finale of HBO’s “The Newsroom” in 2014 being played by the show’s lead character portrayed by Emmy-winner Jeff Daniels.
3. “Old Dogs, Children & Watermelon Wine” (1972)
Hall’s 1972 no. 1 country hit “Old Dogs, Children & Watermelon Wine” is one of those songs I mentioned earlier where the narrator, in this case Hall himself, is given wise advice from a regular Joe, in this case a janitor at a Miami bar. The song is a true account of Hall’s experience at the 1972 Democratic National Convention and a conversation he had with a janitor at a Miami Beach hotel. In the janitor’s mind there’s “only three things in this old world worth a solitary dime: old dogs, children and watermelon wine.” It’s one of the ultimate country story songs and Rolling Stone magazine listed it as one of country music’s 100 greatest songs of all-time in 2014.
2. “Homecoming” (1969)
“Homecoming,” a no. 5 hit for Hall in 1969, should be a movie. It basically is a movie in song form in just over three minutes. Hall was great at penning songs about writers and performers – proving the adage “write what you know” – and “Homecoming” is the best of these as it features a traveling musician passing through his hometown on the way from one performance to another who stops at home for a brief conversation with his dad. It’s perfection.
1. “Ballad of Forty Dollars” (1968)
“Ballad of Forty Dollars,” a no. 4 hit in 1968, has been my favorite Hall song from the moment I heard it – it’s a perfect story song and features the greatest punchline of any punchline that’s ever been written in a song. The narrator is a cemetery caretaker observing the funeral of a man he somewhat knew and essentially giving the play-by-play of it before ending the song with the all-time great: “the trouble is the fella owed me 40 bucks.” In an interview with CMT.com in 2005 Hall revealed that his first job as a young man was mowing the grass at a cemetery and how he’d have to shut down his mower during funerals and just observe them, including conversations being had by the gravediggers.
by Julian Spivey
I was just thrilled to be seeing a concert on Saturday, Aug. 14 after having it postponed more than a year due to Covid-19 and then once again about a week before it’s new date for reasons that were never truly announced. Then less than a week before the new, new date the musician Jason Isbell announced he wouldn’t perform at venues that didn’t require vaccination cards or a negative Covid test within 72 hours of the event and I felt because I lived in the far from progressive Arkansas that the venue might try to prove a dumb point and the show might get canceled.
Luckily the venue accepted the vaccination policy, and Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit went on to put on an incredible show on Saturday night at the First Security Amphitheater in Little Rock, Ark. It was the seventh time I’ve seen the band live (the fourth as the main attraction) and it was one of the best I’ve seen as the band performed a lot of tracks from its 2020 release Reunions and past fan-favorites.
The venue was also packed for the two postponements and uproar that Isbell’s vaccine policy (which is being adopted by many other artists and venues) in the days leading up to the event.
President of River Concerts (which runs shows at the venue) Dan Fife told KATV Channel 7 that only 10 percent of ticket buyers requested a refund.
Isbell & the 400 began their set with “Overseas,” my favorite track off Reunions, which includes one of the best guitar solos of Isbell’s career to date.
Other terrific tracks from that album the band would play over the span of the evening were “It Gets Easier,” no doubt inspired by Isbell’s now decade-long sobriety, “Letting You Go,” dedicated to his five-year old daughter Mercy who is traveling on tour with him, “Be Afraid,” “What’ve I Don’t Help,” “Dreamsicle” and “Only Children.”
Of Isbell’s terrific output over the past decade, I’d have to say Reunions was my least favorite, but these songs just go to show how great of a singer-songwriter he is because they’re still top notch.
Isbell does a terrific job at spreading great songs from his entire career throughout his set. There was “Last of My Kind” and “If We Were Vampires” from 2017’s The Nashville Sound, “Something More than Free” and “24 Frames” from 2015’s Something More Than Free and “Super 8,” “Elephant,” “Stockholm” and “Cover Me Up” from 2013’s Southeastern. These are all essentially “greatest hits” for the songwriter from the Muscle Shoals, Ala. region.
Perhaps my favorite performance from Isbell & the 400 Unit’s set was “Outfit” from his days with the Southern rock group Drive-By Truckers that I hadn’t seen the band play in concert the last few times I’ve attended their shows. It had been replaced a lot in 400 Unit sets by “Never Gonna Change,” also from his days with the Truckers. Isbell dedicated the song to his father, who has also been tagging along on tour with his son.
One of the funnier moments of the show was when Isbell played the classic “Oh Well” from the Peter Green days of Fleetwood Mac for his daughter Mercy, early on in his set before her bedtime, as its one of her favorite songs he plays, despite not being his own. He’s a multiple-time Grammy Award winning artists and his own daughter would rather he play covers. It was a fantastic performance by the entire band that includes Sadler Vaden on guitar, Jimbo Hart on bass, Chad Gamble on drums and Derry DeBorja on keys and occasionally accordion and anything else necessary.
After a terrific 18-song set, Isbell would return to the stage for an encore, at first just with Vaden as the two performed an excellent acoustic version of “Tour of Duty,” from the band’s 2011 album Here We Rest. The two were then joined by the remainder of the band for a rip-roaring performance of “Never Gonna Change” that truly brought the house down.
Sometimes postponements can bring about great opportunities and that’s what happened when this show was moved from 2020 to 2021 as legendary singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams was the opener on Saturday but wasn’t going to be in 2020. It’s truly a miracle Williams was able to perform as she’s less than a year removed from having a stroke in November of last year. She was helped to a seated stool on the stage for her performance and is still unable to play guitar, but she sounds terrific. She thrilled the audience, the part of the audience that arrived early enough to see her set (come on people, enjoy the openers, especially when they’re this notable), with performances like “Bad News Blues,” “Pineola,” “Drunken Angel” and “You Can’t Rule Me.” Toward the end of her set she stood up, while leaning on her seat, to pay tribute to recently departed ZZ Top bassist Dusty Hill with an excellent cover of that band’s 1973 song “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” and remained on her feet to finish with “Righteously,” “Honey Bee” and “Get Right with God.”
As I previously wrote on this website, I am 100 percent thrilled with Isbell’s decision to enforce a vaccination policy for his show and I’m happy to see other artists and venues and concert promoters doing the same. I love live music and the only way for live music to continue now is to ensure the safety of the concert goers and those artists performing, their crews behind the scenes and those who work at the venues. I wondered if having to show vaccination cards at the entrance would make the process of entering the venue take longer – it didn’t add any time whatsoever to being able to get into the venue on Saturday night. So, I have to say any venues or people complaining that they can’t do it are just plain wrong or inept.
by Julian Spivey
“What’ve I done to help? What’ve I done to help but not myself” – Jason Isbell sings on the track “What’ve I Done to Help” on his band’s 2020 album Reunions.
On Sunday, Aug. 8, Isbell went quite a way in living up to those lyrics when he announced on MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle Reports that he wouldn’t perform at any venue on his tour that wouldn’t adhere to his vaccine requirements for concerts that have fans show proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test 72 hours prior to the show upon entrance at the venue.
His announcement immediately caused controversy because to some the Covid-19 pandemic has been a matter of freedom more than public safety all along, as ignorant as that may be.
Most venues have adhered to Isbell’s policy thus far, with one show at Houston’s Cynthia Woods Mitchel Pavilion that was set for August 11 being canceled. The venue said it was more of a timing issue than disagreement with Isbell’s policy.
This was a matter that personally affected my plans this week because I have tickets for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s Little Rock, Ark. show at the First Security Amphitheater on Saturday, Aug. 14 and was worried the venue would make some dumbass statement over the policy because Arkansas isn’t exactly the most progressive state in the country and has done terribly when it comes to its citizens getting vaccinated.
I’m thrilled the venue is going forward with the show and will be more than happy to show my vaccination card to the usher upon reaching the gate. More than that I’m thrilled to be a bit less worried during the show without the unclean being around.
I find it asinine that Isbell has become the target of so much hate over his decision to enforce a vaccination policy on his tour. I think it’s admirable that he wants to try to protect his fans (and himself and his bandmates and tour personnel) the best he can. I think it’s important for an award-winning artist of his stature to take a stand and say, and these aren’t his words but rather my take on it: “if you want to come out and see live music, you need the vaccine (or at least a recent negative test), because the way things are going, we’re going to have to shut everything down like we did in 2020.”
If you have a problem with Isbell’s policy – don’t go to his show (not that you could anyway). Concerts aren’t a right. They’re a privilege. This isn’t discrimination because everyone (age 12 and up) has availability to the vaccine as it’s free – hell, Arkansas had to throw out thousands of vaccines recently simply because people didn’t want them. It’s no more discriminating for a venue (or any business for that matter) to make you show a vaccine passport before entering than it is for it to enforce a dress code.
I applaud Isbell for taking a stand, especially knowing it was one that could cause him money and potentially even “fans.” I think fans of live music better get used to this because I think it’s only the beginning and we’re going to see many other artists follow suit.
by Julian Spivey
On Thursday, July 22 rock legend Eric Clapton, the only man elected into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame three times as a solo act and as a member of both The Yardbirds and Cream, announced that he would not perform concerts in venues that require proof of vaccination amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Clapton is scheduled for an eight-city tour across the American South this fall that will see him make stops in Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida (locations he likely won’t have to worry about when it comes to vaccine requirements or truly anybody being vaccinated whatsoever).
Clapton, who has been vocal of Britain’s COVID lockdown and even collaborated with fellow rock hall member Van Morrison on an anti-lockdown song called “Stand and Deliver,” issued a statement that said: “I wish to say that I will not perform on any stage where there is a discriminated audience present. Unless there is a provision made for all people to attend, I reserve the right to cancel the show.”
On Friday, July 23, Clapton went a step further by debuting a new anti-vax song on his social media platforms called “No Vaccine” that sounded suspiciously like his 1977 classic rock staple “Cocaine.”
The lyrics for “No Vaccine” are below:
If you want to get sick
That’s your privilege
If you want to get down
Down in the ground
Don’t you watch the news
They’ll just give ya blues
You don’t need that prick
It’s all bullshit
by Julian Spivey
Honestly, 2021 has been a weak year thus far for both Americana and country music. There hasn’t been a whole lot released that has genuinely excited me and there have even been releases from a favorite act or two this year that have at least been slightly disappointed – I’m looking at you Eric Church. But there’s always going to be several good songs in any year, even one that’s certainly been weaker than any year I can remember in the last decade or so.
Every year I do an extensive end of the year list of the best of Americana and country music for the entire year, and I don’t like to spoil that a whole lot, so I’m not going to rank these 10 songs that have stood out to me this year.
Allison Russell – The Runner
When it comes to music, I’m a lyrics guy first. The sound comes second for me. But it’s the sound of Allison Russell’s “The Runner” that I think caught my attention first – it just sounds so unique and interesting to me – like it’s all at once fresh and nostalgic. The theme of the song is certainly nostalgia with Russell recalling how music saved her from an abusive adoptive father and how she had to run across country from Montreal to Vancouver, Canada to escape him.
Eric Church – Break It Kind of Guy
I mentioned above that Eric Church’s double-album (or triple album if you’re a member of his fan club) Heart & Soul was disappointing to me, especially since Church has been one of my favorite artists since he debuted. It’s his least interesting album thus far, but still has some gems like “Break it Kind of Guy,” which I’ve liked from my first listen. “Break it Kind of Guy” is a perfect mixture of Church’s badass “Chief” side and a soulful side we saw on his previous album Dangerous Man. I think there’s a bit of “Break it Kind of Guy” in all of us and it’s a lot of fun to sing along with, especially on a day you’re feeling a bit defiant.
Miranda Lambert – Ghost
I think the best album of 2021 thus far has been The Marfa Tapes collaboration between singer-songwriter friends Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram and Jon Randall. There’s a lot of good Lambert tracks on the collaboration, but the one that has stuck with me the most is “Ghost,” a break-up tune that TasteofCountry’s Angela Stefano brilliantly wrote “is a musical exorcism of sorts.” After a couple of high-profile relationships with fellow musicians it seems Lambert is finally at ease in life with her husband Brendan McLoughlan.
James McMurtry – Canola Fields
I was kind of late to James McMurtry in 2015 when he released Complicated Game when I absolutely fell in love with his songs “Copper Canteen” and “You Got to Me,” which have undoubtedly become two of my most listened to songs of the last five years. McMurtry hasn’t released an album since then, which has left me really wanting more from the songwriter who has creativity in his lineage (his dad was award-winning novelist Larry McMurtry). His upcoming album The Horses and the Hounds doesn’t come out until August 20, but the first single “Canola Fields” instantly became one of my favorite songs of the year thus far the very first time I heard the song about remembering a past love with its cinematic lyrics that truly paint a beautiful landscape.
Jon Randall – Amazing Grace - West Texas
West Texas and its undoubtedly picturesque landscapes have brought a few of my favorite songs of the year, the first being “Amazing Grace – West Texas,” a Jon Randall contribution to the excellent The Marfa Tapes. It’s beautiful in its simplicity of small-town life that leaves you longing to watch a sunset on a porch swing with your loved one right beside you. Miranda Lambert’s backing vocals flow perfectly with Randall’s lead.
Josh Grider & Drew Kennedy – West Texas Cloud Appreciation Society
If Randall’s “Amazing Grace – West Texas” has you admiring the West Texas sunset than Josh Grider and Drew Kennedy’s collaboration “West Texas Cloud Appreciation Society” will have you admiring the clouds that come before it. It’ll also have you admiring a terrific whistle solo. I really love lyrics like, “if you’re a fan of God or Bob Ross/join the West Texas Cloud Appreciation Society.” You’ll be singing along with this one fast.
Lucero – Coffin Nails
Alright, it’s time to get a little dark. I’ve been a bit mild on Lucero in the past, even though they have a dedicated following around my neck of the woods (front man Ben Nichols is from Little Rock), but I loved the gothic-drama of “Coffin Nails,” off their latest release When You Found Me from the first listen – it’s just too disturbing not to enjoy with its tale of a banshee that haunts a war-torn family. The subject matter fits Nichols’ sandpaper vocals terrifically and, well, we just need more banshee songs.
The Steel Woods – Ole Pal
It’s hard to listen to The Steel Woods latest album All of Your Stones without thinking of their late bassist and co-writer Jason “Rowdy” Cope, who died in January. Some of the more somber tracks make you wonder if they may have come about following Cope’s death, despite the fact the album was released just a few months later. “Ole Pal,” written by front man Wes Bayliss is one of those songs. “Ole Pal” tells the story of a high school friend who’s passed on – and was reportedly inspired by the death of Winnie Cooper’s brother in Vietnam in the ‘80s TV series “The Wonder Years.” It’s a heartbreaking ballad that’ll certainly stay with you long after you hear it.
Sturgill Simpson – Jesus Boogie
Technically, “Jesus Boogie” from Sturgill Simpson’s bluegrass record Cuttin’ Grass – Vol. 2 was released at the very end of 2020, but I had already formalized this website’s best of 2020 list, so I saved it for the new year. “You never asked me if I wanted to be the son of God” is one of my favorite lyrics of the year. Can you imagine that burden? It’s so devastating, especially the way Simpson’s sings it. The track is filled out with beautiful bluegrass picking making for one of the most pleasantly sounding and thought-provoking tunes of the year.
Yola – Diamond Studded Shoes
Can I get away with calling an Americana song a “banger”? Yola’s “Diamond Studded Shoes” is soulful to the core, but also a bit dark when you pay attention to the lyrics. She hides the seriousness of the song in an upbeat groove, something that could get people loving the song before the even find out it has a message. It’s a song about never giving up the fight for things that are important because there hasn’t been a whole lot of change in the world just yet.
by Aprille Hanson-Spivey
Walking into the Rev Room in Little Rock, Ark., on June 25 was a bit like coming home. When my husband Julian and I saw Jason Boland and the Stragglers perform there in February of 2020, we had no idea that would be our last concert for the next year and four months. For us, live music is a passion. There’s a different energy when you connect on almost a spiritual level with the performer onstage, rocking out to their music in real time. We stay charged up by attending a lot of concerts throughout the year.
So, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were in desperate need of a recharge.
The venue looked the same, a black room with concrete floors, just a few steps leading up to another level with a bar in the back. But Mecca is the stage and seeing the instruments set up with the giant red “Rev Room” sign hanging in the back, I couldn’t help but think, “Hello old friend.”
It’s a miracle it survived the pandemic. So many small music venues throughout the country weren’t so lucky.
It’s a miracle we all survived. It’s what made this concert so different than all the others. There was this excitement, a newness and a gratefulness that was unspoken, but felt so deeply. When opener Gabe Lee took the stage, I immediately teared up. This happened several times. I was grateful to God for the scientists, for healthcare workers, for the vaccine, for my life and for reawakening that piece of my soul that had been silenced since the pandemic started. I leaned over and told my husband, “We’re back” because it was a chance for us to finally breathe, in a crowd, at a concert, without the fear of death looming.
When headliner American Aquarium hit the stage, I was ready to just rock it out. So, when lead singer B.J. Barham opened with “Me + Mine (Lamentations),” a song of struggle and the forgotten middle class, I was taken aback. I quickly realized as my eyes teared up again that there was really no other way to start this set after the trauma of the pandemic. It was perfect. It was an acknowledgement of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.
I sang loudly. I laughed. I danced. My husband and I looked at each other singing “Don’t want a day that doesn’t start with you.” I didn’t look at my phone to check the time. I didn’t take a fraction of the photos I normally take at concerts. I was immersed in the moment. I was finally living again.
I knew I missed live music, but I didn’t realize how much I had missed it until that moment. We talked with B.J. after the show – we met him previously, one of the nicest musicians we’ve had the pleasure of chatting with. I got to share with him how much his songs “The World is on Fire” and “A Better South” helped me cope through the craziness of the Trump presidency and countless examples of racial injustice. He explained how happy he was that people of our generation will hopefully bring about a new dawn of tolerance and love, especially in the South. The show itself was such a ray of hope, only the band’s fourth one so far on this comeback tour.
With every note played, every lyric sang and every cheer shouted, we were for the first time bonded by something more than our story of survival. We were bonded by the music.