Jul 8, 2015

Live Review: Jason Isbell w/Holly Williams, July 3, Livingston, MS

Jason Isbell w/Holly Williams
July 3, 2015, Livingston Live, Livingston, MS

Amid the spreading oaks and rolling farms of rural Madison County, Mississippi, sits the brick and steel adorned township (trendy farmers' market, sweet shop, restaurant, gift shop, venue, neighborhood? all of the above) of Livingston. It's a beautiful area with a hip, inclusive vibe - I recently saw Travis Meadows perform at the restaurant to an eclectic crowd of regular folks, politicians, some movie director, and local artsy elites.

Friday night, Jason Isbell and Holly Williams performed there in an open field just off the highway. It was an all ages show, so the crowd was mostly families, with plenty of college kids mixed in - probably half the audience there for the music, half for the fellowship. Happily, it was a respectful and attentive crowd - neither talking loudly during songs nor holding up cell phones the whole time - an oddity these days.

(L-R) Chris Coleman, Holly Williams, Becky White
Holly Williams opened the show and gave a strong performance in the humid Madison County afternoon. Her vocals were excellent and her between-song banter fun and inviting. The band was tight as well, sounding crisp and easy-going at once. Williams' set was a family affair, her husband Chris playing guitar for her band, her 9-month-old daughter getting an introduction and crowd-aided selfie, and even her mother, Becky, making an appearance to sing backing vocals on the song "Mama."

Among other songs Williams performed were "Happy," "Drinkin'," "The Highway," and an emotional take of "Waiting on June." She finished her set with a crowd singalong of her famous grandfather's "I Saw the Light." It was a fun show, certainly enough to please longtime fans and entertain the unaffiliated alike. I got to meet Holly at her merch booth afterwards, and she was engaging and very friendly.

With lightning bouncing through the northwestern clouds, Isbell and the 400 Unit took the stage a bit later. They led with "Palmetto Rose," a hooky throwback rocker from the forthcoming Something More Than Free album. Isbell said it was the first time they'd played it live, but they could've fooled me.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit w/Amanda Shires
Before I go on, let me say that the sound at Livingston Live (as the concert series is known) was by far the best outdoor concert audio I've ever heard and among the best I've experienced period. It was clear and loud, but not blaring, giving equal room for each player and instrument (including the very pregnant Amanda Shires, playing the hell out of the fiddle!). Isbell's vocals were so pure I could hear every word he sang, yet he was still right in the pocket with the band. It was truly impressive.

The stage and lighting were also quite complimentary. There was a set of 5 lights arcing across the back that looked like giant desk lamps pointed toward the crowd. They were a cool change of pace from the usual set. Those lights pulsed and faded depending on the song and mood. Overall, I couldn't be more pleased with the atmosphere and sound of the concert.

The next few songs included an emotional tour de force trio of Drive-by Truckers' favorite "Decoration Day" and the timely (it was July 4th weekend) "Tour of Duty" and "Dress Blues." Current single "24 Frames" ended with thunder creeping into the audio and spiderwebs of light filling the darkening sky. We'd have to take a short lightning break, according to Jason. That short break turned into an hour, and I was concerned that'd be the end of it.

Thankfully, Isbell and his Unit were up to the challenge and stuck around through the indeterminate delay. The crowd, thinned out and wet but still relatively large, returned from cars, underneath trees, and inside shops to fill the field again, the stage crew mopped and pulled tarps, and we were back up and running. The band settled into tunes from Southeastern and Here We Rest for the next few minutes.

Jason and the giant desk lamps
"Cover Me Up," a song I've always liked but maybe not loved, proved the most religious experience of the evening. It started off spare and acoustic, with Isbell's keening voice raising goosebumps and hands across the crowd. A constant murmur of applause and cheers started after the first chorus and never let up, getting only louder as the percussion and electric kicked in. The "desk lamps" were in perfect time with the powerful, slow beat and Jason never pulled back the reins on his full-throated delivery, and by the end of the tune, I was honestly a little teary-eyed. It was that damn strong of a performance. This wasn't a standing crowd (lawn chairs and blankets), but this was a standing ovation.

Next was the band's first live performance of the catchy and surprisingly commercial-sounding new tune "The Life You Chose." Again, they sounded as comfortable with this song as they did with their two-hundredth rendition of "Outfit." "Children of Children," another new tune, was a showcase for the guitars in the extended coda. It brought to mind Wilco's more experimental rock songs (…at least the better ones - that have a clear purpose and direction to all the guitar shredding and not just a noodle-fest).

There were a few more tunes after that, then almost as soon as Isbell had reintroduced the band and thanked the crowd after "Super 8," fireworks hit the sky and we were done. It felt a little abrupt, but still… I can't complain much about getting 15 songs despite an hour-long weather delay, especially as good as the show was.

I've seen Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit once before, a few months after Here We Rest came out. They were very good then, a ragged but passionate bunch… probably one of the best bar bands in the nation at the time. Friday night, I experienced a different crew altogether. This was a band coming into their full potential - a true rock n' roll powerhouse, with a sound big enough to fill arenas but intimate enough to not clear a listening room. In a less divided and distracted era, they'd be one of the biggest bands in the world.

I've now lost count of how many concerts I've seen, but… if I had to pare it down to a handful, this show would easily make the cut. If these guys swing through your area, get your ass out there! No excuses.

Isbell & the 400 Unit setlist:
Palmetto Rose
Decoration Day
Tour of Duty
Dress Blues
24 Frames
Different Days
Alabama Pines
Cover Me Up
The Life You Chose
Children of Children
Something More Than Free
Super 8

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