Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit preformed at The Peabody Opera House on Wednesday night and it was fantastic. This show has been highly anticipated since the June 16 release of his sixth studio album, The Nashville Sound. Isbell, a Grammy award winning musician from a small town in northern Alabama, plays with a band of musicians who primarily hail from the Muscle Shoals area, including his wife and accomplished violinist, Amanda Shires. The pair performed as recently as March at The Peabody when Shires opened for John Prine and was accompanied by her husband.
I've been hearing Jason Isbell's name for years. He has a significant following in my hometown of Carbondale, Illinois where long ago he played several shows at the townies' favorite dive bar, PKs. This was when Isbell was still drinking and before he married Shires. Isbell doesn't shy away from talking about his troubled past. He's sober now and the tone of his work has changed drastically over the years. Depending on the sadness of the lyrics you could guess which album the track appears on. In a new song, "Molotov," he describes those younger days: "Ride the throttle 'til the wheels come off. Burn out like a molotov in the night sky."
Isbell first found fame as one of the lead singers for alternative country/Southern rock group Drive-By Truckers. He still performs some of their songs, much to the indulgence of the long-time fans. While playing "Decoration Day," speaking volumes of their creative relationship, Shires took the solo originally written for guitar. Throughout the evening the display of their love, and especially Isbell's adoration for his wife, is inescapable. Most notable is the huge illuminated anchor and sparrow logo suspended centrally above the band. This symbol is also shared as tattoos on the couple's arms and serves as their wedding crest.
During a portion of the show dedicated to songs from his album Southeastern, Isbell tells a story of a time when he and Shires were in separate rooms on opposite ends of a small house writing music. It was during a time when they were still getting to know each other and he wrote this song for her. They would meet in the middle and play each other what they were working on. He said, "My wife will put up with a lot of things, but a piece of shit song isn't one of them. She's a music critic, but thankfully she liked it." There wasn't a person in the theater that didn't already know what song was to follow. The stage lights turn to three shades of blue and for the first few verses of the beautiful and profound "Cover Me Up." The lyrics in this song will never lose their weight for me and I still get chills every time I hear it. A well-deserved standing ovation accompanied.
The genre of country music has always been dominated by white men. In the timely and very necessary "White Man's World," Isbell acknowledges his inherent privilege and recognizes the inequalities he witnesses involving people of color, Native Americans, women, and specifically the unfair reality he fears his daughter will face. He then goes one step further to recollect the mistake he has made of not speaking up against injustice: "I'm a white man looking in a black man's eyes, wishing I'd never been one of the guys who pretended not to hear another white and man's joke. Oh, the times ain't forgotten."
As a lighthearted change of pace, Isbell playfully plugged his new album, The Nashville Sound, as being sold on vinyl in the lobby, as if anyone present wasn't familiar already. He says, "It's also available on compact disc, but technology is changing quickly so be sure to go buy those CDs. They sound just as good, but it's hard to carry around a lot of them so it's best to have one great album." Shires chimes in, "Like The Nashville Sound!" Not letting the joke die just yet Isbell adds, "Like I said earlier, my wife's a music critic and she loves the album."
They played the romantically haunting song "If We Were Vampires" from his new album during the encore. It's one of those songs that seems best suited for a funeral, but will likely get a lot of play at weddings. It's just as sweet as it is weighty and serves as a harsh reminder that the one you love will die and hopefully you'll be dead first as to experience the lesser of the two pains. "It's knowing that this can't go on forever. Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone. Maybe we'll get forty years together. But one days I'll be gone. Or one day you'll be gone." The collective hearts of the crowd were on the floor and the 400 Unit was just stomping them into a pulp.
For the final song of the evening the band broke out the legendary Allman Brothers' "Wipping Post" to send us off knowing without a doubt that the range of Jason Isbell is even more far-reaching than we expected. He can rock. He can make you cry. He has something to say about gender and racial inequality. And he can make you clap on the 1 and the 3.
Click the image below to see all of Monica's photos of the concert.
Besides the fact that concerts are a good time to bellow along to your favorite songs and not be judged for it, seeing a band in person often completely changes your idea of them. What with clothing, lighting, and stage banter, it's easy for artists to build up a public persona — one that is all too often wildly different from who they are off-stage or, at least, who you imagine them to be. Simply put, a concert is only half music; the other half is showbiz, baby.
Well, that's how most bands work. And then there's Big Thief, a folk-rock act that is defined, both in sound and attitude, by complete austerity. Their latest release, Capacity, is a thoughtfully-crafted album that pastes together hauntingly intimate stories of darkness and beauty — its subtle storytelling akin to flipping through a family photo album. Paradoxically vulnerable and powerful, Capacity resists — even contradicts — the idea of the stage-persona: sincerity, not sensationalism, is what defines Big Thief.
Preceding Big Thief at the Old Rock House last Wednesday was Twain, a Brooklyn-based folk act. Composed of just Mat Davidson (whom Big Thief frontwoman Adrianne Lencker called "my favorite living songwriter") and his guitar, Twain embodies the minimalist beauty that will define the rest of the night. (This is also his last time opening for Big Thief on this tour). Despite being a solo act, he achieves a richness of sound that might normally be expected of a two or three-person set. His chord progressions and colorful guitar textures, effortlessly filling the room, hint at exceptional musicianship. Davidson, however, is concentrating on anything but the technicalities: with his eyes lowered and his expression thoughtful, he seems completely at ease despite the dozens of people in front of him. His voice — sometimes whispery, sometimes triumphant — evokes an intimacy that is rare to feel at a show as packed as this one. In fact, Twain's songwriting emanates a sense of universal wisdom that seems somehow sacred. There were songs of transient love and transient life, songs of inner peace and outer harmony. The entire experience felt a little transcendentalist, as if Henry David Thoreau himself had come back from the dead, armed with a guitar and an ear for folk music.
Big Thief's Capacity may have some of the most powerful songwriting on any album this year, and to hear its message live is extremely moving: Lencker spins stories of trauma into something simultaneously disturbing and hypnotic, like the haunting image of a mother soaking up her child's blood with a dishrag in "Mythological Beauty" (which happens to be about a real near-death experience Lencker had as a toddler). At the Old Rock House, none of that power was lost in delivery; in fact, it's perhaps even more moving to see Lencker in the spotlight, her eyes closed, singing softly about events that most people would never in a million years talk about. In some ways, what was most jarring about seeing Big Thief live was the openness and honesty of it all. Capacity is a very personal album, filled with stories of abuse and sex, love and death, odes to friends addressed by name. Show after show, Lencker shares these stories with a roomfuls of strangers and, truly, her capacity for honesty is infinitely impressive.
On stage, Big Thief's technical prowess also shines. Their guitar work, sometimes soft and harmonic, sometimes harsh and dissonant, adds another layer of darkness to the album. The grating cacophony at the beginning of "Shark Smile," for example, is one of those instances in which the guitar-work take the forefront. That isn't to say the band's instrumentals aren't always top notch: on the contrary, songs like "Haley" and "Pretty Things" demonstrate a subtle mastery of instrumental lyricism, where the guitar seems to sing along with Lencker's hushed vocals. In fact, some of the more upbeat songs had the entire venue dancing — a fact that I found kind of funny during "Shark Smile," considering the song is about losing a lover in a highway car-crash. In this way, Big Thief is truly remarkable: they can take even the darkest parts of life and turn them into something you can dance to or, at least, something that adds a little light to that darkness.
Click the image below to see all of Ben Mudd's photos from the evening's performances at the Old Rock House.
Following opener Darren Hanlon, an Australian songwriter who proclaimed the members of Chastity Belt his "sisters from other misters," lead singer Julia Shapiro, guitarist Lydia Lund, bassist Annie Truscott, and drummer Gretchen Grimm took the stage to share their unique brand of noise pop with the crowd at Off Broadway last Thursday. Hanlon was a loquacious opening act, regaling the audience with the time his Megabug took gunshots outside of Chattanooga and lamenting the fact that Australia does not boast as many potato chip flavors as America. The members of Chastity Belt were almost stoic by comparison, saving their early between-song banter for requests to the sound engineer.
The band's intro music was the theme to Sex & the City, an ironic smirk that was followed by the song "Happiness." from Chastity Belt's latest release I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone. "Happiness" hits heavily upon the album's sense of day-to-day doldrums, featuring lyrics like "I wanna wake up feeling great, every single day; is that too much to ask?"
The first songs of the set were infused with a laid-back West Coast flavor. Lead singer Julia Shapiro sported a Portland Trailblazers tank jersey with a baseball cap perched atop her mass of blonde curls. The visual seemed to set the tone for a concert that was stylish in an "Oh-this-old-thing?" fashion.
Toward the end of the set, the band switched things up with Shapiro alternately swapping duties with drummer Gretchen Grimm and guitarist Lydia Lund. The song "5am" was gleefully dedicated to the opener with the band exclaiming, "This one's for Darren!" and featured an extended guitar solo from Shapiro -- making liberal use of the fuzz pedal to the delight of the crowd.
Ovations were tumultuous and, following a quick intermission, the members of Chastity Belt rejoined the stage to send off the crowd with "Time to Go Home" and "Seattle Party." The latter, a track from their debut album No Regrets, had the audience enthusiastically dancing along to the lyrics, "I think they're having fun!"
Click below to see all of Colin Suchland's photos of the night's performances.
I've almost always been drawn towards break-up albums. Even before my first serious break-up in high school, most break-up albums always appealed to me. Some of my favorite songs of all time are break-up songs and my favorite album of all time, Dean Blunt's The Redeemer, is a break-up album. So, when I found out the latest album from Toro Y Moi, Boo Boo, was partially a break-up album, I was super intrigued. Under his Toro Y Moi moniker, Chaz Bear (fka Chaz Bundick) has made some songs alluding to relationship issues, but this time around he was digging deeper than before, which in turn helped create not only his best album in over half a decade, but possibly his best album yet.
Now along with this slight change in subject matter, we also have a new change in sound that's rooted more in early '80s R&B and synth pop rather than the traditional indie-rock sound seen on his last album, What For? In order to do this style justice, Bear provides some of his confident vocals yet, showing a new layer of vulnerability that does the lyrics justice. Opener "Mirage" showcases this to near perfection, as we take a look into Bear's headspace as he labors over a potential confrontation with his significant other. The music behind him is calm and collected on the surface, but frantic in its layers much like Bear in the song with zany synths, punchy percussion straight out of an '80s drum machine, and autotune background vocals.
The album overall sees Bear jumping all throughout time in the end and aftermath of the relationship, with early album highlight "Mona Lisa" seeing Bear realizing his feelings are fading for his lover, comparing her to a stolen Mona Lisa painting. On "Don't Try" -- my personal favorite track on the album -- Bear slows things down with a spacey synths and a constant drum machine, bringing us into the aftermath of the relationship where he's at his lowest low. Lyrics like "Woke up only cuz I thought I had to" and "Give me no ideas, I just waste them" hit me like an absolute gut punch knowing how many times I've been there in my own battles with depression.
Another new addition on the album which I briefly hinted at is some of Chaz Bear's extensive use of autotune throughout the album, especially on songs like "Windows" and "Girl Like You," both cuts that could have probably fit nicely on Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak. While Kanye West wasn't mentioned as a direct influence on this album, many artists that he's worked with or influenced himself were mentioned in the press release including Travis Scott, Frank Ocean, and Daft Punk, the latter two having some of the biggest influence in the sound and feel of the record.
Boo Boo is a huge revelation for Toro Y Moi. For me at least, he's never made a truly consistent album, as almost every album of his has at least two or three clunkers that don't quite work out and ruin the flow of the album. But with this, there are no bad songs and no ideas that aren't fleshed out. The album is sequenced to near perfection as every track here is essential. I was expecting another pretty solid album from Chaz, but instead I got something truly great. With a newfound confidence, let's just hope he can keep things up.
I'll admit it: I was never much of a country music person. In high school, I was one of those pretentious kids who proudly declared I listened to, 'like, literally everything but country.' You can't blame me; growing up in an immigrant household in a dense little neighborhood at the edge of Chicago, country/bluegrass/Americana was never quite the 'big thing.' Well, moving to St. Louis has provided me with something of a culture shock. Sure, the punk, indie, noise, etc. is all here, but country music holds an entirely different meaning: the city embraces it, celebrates it, and lovingly cultivates it. Thus, when approached to do a review about Daniel Romano's show at Off Broadway last Tuesday night, I thought it couldn't hurt to give it a go; if KDHX likes country so much, it can't be all bad, right?
Luckily for me, country music is in the midst of a genre-wide renaissance. Artists like Daniel Romano are redefining what it means to be a country musician, drawing upon a range musical influences outside of what would be considered orthodox — rock, punk, world, and even noise influences sneak into every hook, riff, and chorus. Country, like everything else in this age of change and reinvention, has emerged sounding a little bit different.
Just take the first opener, St. Louis's own Brainpal, for example. The deep, Southern-tinged voice of frontman Reshad Staitieh undeniably speaks to the band's classic country influences (as do all of the band members' pointy-toed, leather boots). Their songs, however, give off a dark, discordant vibe, which is only intensified by the harsh guitar lines that churn alongside Staitieh's powerful singing. The sheer intensity of the experience is decidedly a darker spin on classic country, drawing from rock and maybe even emo roots.
The second act of the night, The Strange Places, (also homegrown) is more akin to Daniel Romano, both in terms of sound —what the band themselves call "kosmic country" — and look — an aesthetic that would look right at home in the 1960s. Lead vocalist Chris Baricavic, who onstage goes by his space-cowboy pseudonym Kristo, brings just the right blend of weird Americana and classic rock as he struts, yelps, and howls. The songs themselves — surprisingly lyrical tales of witchdoctors, desert magic, and even tumbleweeds — embody the whimsical otherworldliness that 'noveau country' brings to the table.
Daniel Romano himself is the very embodiment sonic evolution. His newest album, Modern Pressure, is both a continuation of the undeniable country flavoring of his previous release, 2016's Mosey, and a reinvention of it. Modern Pressure is an album that refuses to be defined by generic archetypes; it is neither rock nor country, but something in between. The result is a sound that is as striking as Romano himself.
"He looks like a Bob Dylan impersonator," my friend whispers to me as Romano takes to the stage; indeed, in a colorful collared shirt, flared pants, and a flowery sunhat that looks like something the Queen of England would wear, he exudes the same, offbeat coolness that defined Dylan in his prime. The rest of the band, outfitted in similarly flowy clothing, look as though they've stepped straight out of the '60s; the guitarist even nonchalantly chews gum throughout the entire set, in true, vintage rebellious fashion.
The set opens with the album's titular track, "Modern Pressure." Earlier that day, he had performed the same song at a KDHX studio session: it was a stripped-down rendition, performed by just Romano and two other musicians. With just his breathy, wavering voice over the whisper of the acoustic guitar, it had seemed like a love song, sung sweetly and softly. I had expected something similar for his performance at Off Broadway, but Daniel Romano, always the sonic chameleon, shows off just how widely his talents range. "Modern Pressure" is the perfect opening — a grandiose rock anthem that channels the brashness and confidence that defines Romano's style. The evolution is surprising, not just because of the stark differences between his two sets, but because of how effortlessly he pulls it off.
The rest of the night proceeds with just as much fast-paced vigor. Even the more mellow songs, like "Roya" and "What's to Become of the Meaning of Love" are infused with new energy in a live setting; there are plenty of electric guitar solos, drum solos, yelps, and howls. Unlike in the KDHX sessions, Romano doesn't hold anything back, allowing the full breadth of his voice, piercing and powerful, to fill the room.
As Romano begins to play "When I Learned Your Name," another song he had performed at KDHX, I think of how I'm supposed to define this experience: country music's old-timey twang is definitely there, but so is rock's unadulterated energy. Listening to the sheer spirit behind his singing, though, it almost seems silly to confine Romano to the boundaries of one genre or the other. The music is here in all its glory, and that's what matters.
Click the image below to see all of Chris Malacarne's photos of the night's performances.