Jason Isbell shared the billing with Hard Working Americans at the Ogden last night. Isbell took the stage promptly at 8 p.m., and that seemed to throw almost everyone for a loop. At about 8:10, with the club only at three-quarters capacity, Isbell was already into his second song, "Go It Alone," off of 2011's Here We Rest. Worried that I'd missed my favorite song, I spotted a friendly cowboy (complete with a ten-gallon hat) at the bar and asked him if Isbell had opened with "Alabama Pines."
"No, 'Stockholm,'" he said. I breathed a sigh of relief and he clapped me on the back. "Don't worry, you're safe!"
Everyone at a Jason Isbell show is friends. Maybe Southern hospitality infiltrates the crowd, or maybe it's that we're all lonely expats thrilled to be around our people again. There's a distinctive regionalism that pervades Isbell's work. Hell, his last record was called Southeastern. Throughout the show, as he name-dropped Southern cities in his lyrics, the crowd would pipe up in scattered yips in recognition of their home towns. In lieu of doing the standard quick-and-dirty introduction of every member of the band, Isbell introduced each member individually after the first few songs. And with each one, he included their home states: Alabama, South Carolina, Maryland -- emphasizing the southeastern pedigree that makes Isbell's music so distinct.
Isbell's Southern roots come through in song form and in lyrics. He comes from a family of musicians, divided between Pentecostal Holy Rollers and Church of Christ -- a sect that famously allows no musical instruments or dancing. His lyrics are steeped in place. Halfway through the set, on "Cover Me Up," when he sang, "Girl, leave your boots by the bed/We ain't leaving this room til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom," I'm instantly back on the playground in North Carolina peeling apart the sticky magnolia blossoms. This is what gives country music its staying power. It's nostalgic, and on its worst days it can be cloying. But when it's like this -- pure and honest -- it's hard not to identify with it. No matter where you're from, the themes ring true: loss, memory, place, longing.
Isbell plays every show like he just invited a few of his friends over to hear some new tunes. There's no pretense, no rock-star posturing. "I know a lot of musicians ask how you're doing and they don't really care," he says. "But I care. I would be very upset with myself if everybody didn't have a good time." If the lack of cell phones and idle conversation was any indication, the crowd was having a great time. Toward the end of the set, as Isbell ripped into some of his trademark howling, the crowd exploded into peals of screams and applause.
After playing Drive-By Truckers favorite "Decoration Day," Isbell ended his set with "Super 8," an anthem to shady motel rooms that probably sums up how a lot of folks feel: "I don't wanna die in a Super 8 Motel!" Isbell prepped the now-filled-up club for Hard Working Americans in what seemed like an honest endorsement. "You're gonna love these guys. Todd Snider is about as good a songwriter as there is in this world."
Hard Working Americans took the stage after what felt like the longest set break in history. After a full 45 minutes of wondering where all the roadies were, Snider and company took the stage with no introduction or fanfare and launched immediately into "Run a Mile." The contrast between Isbell and Hard Working Americans was distinct. If Isbell is Ryan Adams's heir apparent, then Hard Working Americans are descended directly from the Allman Brothers and vintage Dead. They sound like they just jumped off of your dad's old dusty 45" shelf.
From the way the venue filled out with Hard Working Americans, it became clear that they were the great draw. But when I asked folks outside whether they came for Jason Isbell or Hard Working Americans, 99% of people gave me another answer entirely: Todd Snider. He commands a great deal of respect, and everyone cited his songwriting and storytelling abilities as his strongest trait. That makes Hard Working Americans something of a conundrum: it's a supergroup whose first record was made up entirely of cover songs, so Snider's lyrics can't really shine.
Hard Working Americans formed just last year, and you have to give them credit for their Colorado love. Their first show was in Boulder last December, as a benefit for flood relief. Along with Snider, the group comprises members of Widespread Panic, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Great American Taxi and, of all people, Derek Trucks's little brother Duane. They played a solid set made up mostly of songs off their debut self-titled record. They jammed without being too pretentious -- this is music you can drink High Life in a back yard to. Think CCR in the summertime.
Organs and jamminess aside, here's the real difference between Isbell and Hard Working Americans. Isbell's music is a drive through the pines down I-85, and Hard Working Americans draw on so many disparate traditions and places that it's difficult to pin them down. Snider is from Oregon, but he has ties to Texas and Memphis. John Prine was an early mentor of his. Drummer Duane Trucks comes from north Florida, with connections to the biggies of old-school rock: Allman Brothers, Stills, Dylan. It's post-modern classic rock; Americana that could be from anywhere at any time.
Todd Snider and company played a solid set, powering through songs like "I Don't Have a Gun" and "Wrecking Ball" before ending with an encore with Isbell. If the Hard Working crowd and the Isbell crowd were in their own separate corners throughout the show, the last tune easily brought them together.
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