Bank of NH Pavilion, Gilford, New Hampshire on 19 June 2016
An honest moment in reality television is usually accidental, but on some rare occasions the private plays out in public, and art springs forth. That’s the case when Jason Isbell performs “Cover Me Up” with his band The 400 Unit. He introduces it as the most difficult song he’s ever written.
“I sobered up and swore off that stuff, forever this time,” Isbell sings, and every time the crowd roars in acknowledgement and approval. The Alabama native glances lovingly across the stage at his fiddle player and wife, Amanda Shires, who is the inspiration for the song. She’s also the reason he’s still up there at all, after partying his way out of a band and nearly to death just a few years ago.
That, the opening track of Isbell’s stellar 2013 album Southeastern, was one among many high points during his headlining set at Bank of NH Pavilion at Meadowbrook. He dedicated “Outfit,” a song from his Drive-By Trucker days, to his dad; but set closer “Children of Children” – an ode to his mother, who gave birth to him at age 15 – was the more potent take on parenthood. Coincidentally, it was also Isbell’s first Father’s Day with kids of his own.
Isbell neatly summed up his naked fearlessness as a songwriter in a 2015 interview with Grantland. “I think your job is to try to be as honest as you possibly can and write about those things that make you uncomfortable sometimes,” he said.
His set kicked off with the South Carolina inspired “Palmetto Rose,” and highlights included several songs from his most recent album, Something More Than Free: “24 Frames,” “Speed Trap Town,” “If It Takes a Lifetime” and the title cut, each rendered like Flannery O’Connor with a guitar.
He encored with the spare “Flagship” – dedicated to Shires and only performed when she’s in the band, it featured a gorgeous fiddle solo – and ended the balmy night with “Never Gonna Change,” another burn down the house rocker from his old band.
Set List – Palmetto Rose/Stockholm/24 Frames/Tour of Duty/Outfit/How to Forget/Traveling Alone/Decoration Day/Speed Trap Town/Alabama Pines/Codeine/Cover Me Up/If It Takes a Lifetime/Super 8/Something More Than Free/Flying Over Water/Children of Children Encore – Flagship/Never Gonna Change
The stage backdrop was church styled stained glass, an ironic motif for opener Frank Turner. He’s an avowed atheist, but at his best his performances feel like a tent revival, with call and response songs and the lanky dervish racing across the stage, climbing the drum kit and speaking in tongues.
He channels the voices of earthly saints, however – Elvis, Jerry Lee and Johnny – “all the greats,” to quote Turner’s set opener, “I Still Believe.” Faith works in many forms for the British folk rocker. “I still believe in the sound,” he sings, “that has the power to raise a temple and tear it down.”
Turner deserves to be headlining whenever he plays. Though he provided a bracing and electrifying 40 minute show, it was too short and entreaties for an encore were rebuffed. With luck and foresight, he’ll be back soon topping the bill at Concord’s Capitol Center or Manchester’s Palace Theatre – or the Old Sol Music Hall when it opens in a year or two.
It was fun while it lasted, with one roaring tune after another, some from last year’s breakthrough album, Positive Songs for Negative People. “The Next Storm,” “The Opening Act of Spring” and “Silent Key” all came early in Turner’s set. The latter was inspired by New Hampshire hero Christa McAuliffe, a fact Turner noted before playing a first-ever reworking of the song, which had the ragged but right sound of a Led Zeppelin III outtake.
Turnout was shamefully low given the show’s great one-two punch – the holiday and Game 7 of the NBA Finals probably played a role. Turner engaged the crowd like it was the House of Blues in Boston, which he sold out twice last winter, with singalongs, and audience participation which included bringing a fan onstage to play harmonica on song.
Turner added the fan to his band The Sleeping Souls based on enthusiasm. “He’s been singing every word to all the songs, and just having a great time,” he said. That he was sitting in a VIP front row seat wasn’t a factor, and the guy didn’t even know how to play the mouth harp.
He learned quickly, however. It was that kind of night.
I Still Believe/The Next Storm/Recovery/Long Live the Queen/The Opening Act of Spring/Dan’s Song (solo acoustic)/Silent Key (solo acoustic)/The Way I Tend to Be/Photosynthesis/Get Better