Concert Review – Jason Isbell & Frank Turner

JasonIsbellBank 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.

Set List

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

Earth, Wind & Fire/Michael McDonald @ Meadowbrook

Thursday night’s show at the U.S. Cellular Meadowbrook Pavilion began on a somber note.  Following an a capella rendition of the national anthem by “New Hampshire Idol” winner Anthony Torres, Michael McDonald offered his own 9/11 tribute, a Christmas song called “Peace.”

“With all the ways the world has changed, it seems appropriate now,” he said.

Once that was behind him, a party vibe prevailed, as Earth, Wind & Fire kicked of a fall tour with the former Doobie Brothers front man.  The R&B band stuck to their mid-70’s sweet spot, with multilayered harmonies and funked-up jazz fueling hits like “Fantasy” and “September.”

The 12-member band wasted no time turning up the energy level, opening with three of their biggest hits in rapid succession – “Boogie Wonderland,“ Sing a Song” and “Shining Star.”  Throughout their 90-minute set the focus remained on the players – longtime vocalist Philip Bailey, founding bass player Verdine White (whose dreadlocked dervish antics haven’t lost a step), and the band’s newest member, Kim Johnson, who split lead vocals with Bailey.

Along with a three-man horn section and twin percussionists, the group was in perpetual motion most of the night, flashing Four Tops-like choreographic flourishes and other dance moves.

Eschewing flashy stage props and graphics for a tasteful light show, they reminded the audience that they were one of the most inventive bands of the era, stitching a free form jam onto “Sun Goddess” (one of the evening’s highlights).  On “Serpentine Fire,” White slapped out a rhythm that sounded more like a conga than a bass guitar.

Bailey’s vocal gymnastics helped push aside the fact, with lines like “I’m longing to love you just for a night/the reasons are that we’re here,” “Reasons” is as smarmy as it is pretty.  “September” sparked mass crowd hand waving, while “That’s the Way of the World” provided a perfect, mellow close to the evening.

Michael McDonald’s set drew from his Doobie Brothers catalog, including “Minute By Minute” and a syncopated, loping R&B version of “It Keeps You Running.”  A band of young Nashville players, along with long-time horn man Vince Denham, brought new energy to McDonald hits like “Sweet Freedom,” “I Keep Forgetting” and “Take it To Heart.”

But the focus was on the boomer hits that have given the 55-year old (“I’m a card carrying AARP member”) McDonald’s career a recent shot in the arm – “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Reach Out I’ll Be There.”

The evergreen music of Motown will always have an audience as long as blue-eyed soul men like McDonald have something to say about it.  But it was a rousing rendition of “Taking it to the Streets,” with Drea Rena sharing vocals, the got the biggest response of the night.  The young Rena brought a lot to the show – she’s definitely a singer to watch.

Toby Lightman Shines At Iron Horse

lightmansmall.jpgMost of the crowd at the Iron Horse Tuesday felt that if Toby Lightman had auditioned for “American Idol” back in 2002, Kelly Clarkson would still be hawking Red Bull and waiting tables in Texas.

But the singer-songwriter, who released her first record in 2004 (“Little Things”), has chosen a more methodical path to success. Her sophomore disc, “Bird On A Wire,” came out last July. Lightman says her focus now is “definitely different – I know a lot more than I did before. My approach this time was to do a lot more grassroots touring, I didn’t really do that the first time around.”

Wearing a black Doors T-shirt and accompanied by guitarist Court Clement, Lightman played stripped-down selections from “Little Things” and “Bird on a Wire” during a Tuesday night show which exhibited the many elements that inform her sound. She added improvisational jazz touches to the bridge of set opener “Alone” and laid down a funky groove for “Coming Back In.”

Lightman transformed the syncopated album version of “Slipping” into a spare, sultry rhythm that would have done Norah Jones proud. “I do a lot of angry songs,” she joked by way of introducing the sweet and hopeful “Better,” a song she wrote for her sister upon the birth of her son.

But the growling “River” showed Toby Lightman at her righteously indignant best. “The lights are dim, are you gonna come crying to me?” she sang, deftly trading licks with Clement (a seasoned sideman who has worked with Griffin House and Jessica Lofbomm).

The guitarist’s inclusion definitely helped to spice up the show. Lightman covered Jim Croce’s “Operator” a few years back; she and Clement worked up a version of it in the dressing room prior to the show that was among the most well-received numbers of the night. The song oozed soul, as Lightman came back around at the end for another go at the chorus that took the 70’s soft-rock classic to new heights. If Donnie Hathaway had ever gotten his hands on it, it would have sounded like this.

Between her first and second records, Lightman said backstage before the show, “I’d drifted from pop to more classic soul. I was really enraptured by the organic nature and space of people like Bill Withers and Sly and the Family Stone. There doesn’t need to be so much going on, there’s just a vibe and it’s a great song. You don’t need the tracks.”

The shift to a leaner sound began during the “Little Things” tour, says Lightman. “There’s a lot of programming on the record that was really hard to replicate live.”

Last year, she headed back to the studio with Bill Bottrell and Patrick Leonard (Sheryl Crow, Madonna, Elton John) for “Bird on a Wire.” “This one was very different that the first one,” Lightman says. “Everything was done with live takes. I had never really done that before, but I’m a lot more confident in my voice and playing my guitar.”

That confidence comes across clearly onstage, despite Lightman’s occasional self-deprecating remark. “We suck!” she exclaimed at one point as she fiddled with a guitar tuning. But tunes like “Overflowing,” Holding Me Down” and the forthcoming single “My Sweet Song” gave the lie to such musings. Lightman closed her set with the Ella Fitzgerald-inspired “Sleigh Ride” – another number worked up pre-show – and sent the crowd happily into the night to spread the word about her steadily rising star.