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

Donna Summer @ Meadowbrook

Donna Summer
Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavillion
Gilford, New Hampshire
July 8, 2008

Disco diva Donna Summer hasn’t heard the news, apparently. The album is dead, the song is king – or in her case, queen.

Performing the eighth show of her U.S. tour, Summer devoted more than half the night to selections from her first CD of new material in 17 years.  She’d warned in a recent interview that she planned to use her big hits, like “Hot Stuff” and “Last Dance,” as chips sprinkled in a freshly baked cookie of new music.

It’s a safe wager that the mostly-female crowd would have gladly skipped the carbs and gone for the whole chocolate bar.  If that was the case, they weren’t letting on, and to Summer’s credit, she knew when to deliver the sweet stuff.

Dressed in a sparking blue ballroom gown and arm-length matching gloves, she began the show with “The Queen Is Back” from the new album, and quickly segued into “I Feel Love,” followed by an energetic “Dim All the Lights.”

“I’m A Fire,” another selection from “Crayons,” featured a thumping bass line that recalled Summer’s disco days, and was the first new selection to get the crowd standing.

The tepid “Sand At My Feet” soon had them sitting again.

She brought a five-piece band, with two backup singers and three dancers (who wore themselves out with costumer changes).  She used several electronic panels spread across the stage to good effect, providing moment-to-moment visual cues with every song. “On the Radio” evoked nostalgia for a bygone age with graphics of radio dials, morphing into pulsing disco lights.

Just before intermission, Summer played two of the best tracks from “Crayons” – the bouncy samba “Brazil” and the title song – the latter, a ska-infused romp.   The first set closed with “Mr. Music,” which included a wistful montage of Summer’s record covers over the years.

“Enough is Enough (No More Tears),” her empowering 1979 duet with Barbra Streisand, kicked off the concert’s second half, and like a lot of the evening’s selections, the beat was noticeably (and unnecessarily)  faster than the original.  She followed that with another hit – one of the oddest disco cover songs of all time – “MacArthur Park,” which showed off Summer’s operatic singing range to great effect, and was one of the evening’s highlights.

The middle of set two slumped a bit.  Summer seemed to have difficulty with her self-described “diva moment.”  Her attempts to explain a ‘was this all worth it?’ epiphany were drowned out with “you go, girl” cheers, shouts and song requests. She did another new tune, “Be Myself Again,” touted as new album’s centerpiece, but it’s more than a long shot that anyone will ever hear it again after this concert (unless they buy “Crayons” – another dodgy bet).

Likewise, “Slide Over Backwards,” featuring the fictional Hattie Mae, proprietor of a mock New Orleans bar, fell flat when Summer left the stage for a costume change and let one of her backup singers solo for a song.

She recovered from this small disaster with a one-two-three punch of “She Works Hard For the Money,” “Bad Girls” and “Hot Stuff” – the last given a modern sheen with Randy Mitchell’s screaming lead guitar work.

She encored with a not-so-subtle bow to David Bowie (‘Fame (The Game)”), augmented with a photo montage of Billie Holliday, Jimi Hendrix, Marilyn Monroe and John Lennon, along with head shots from Hollywood’s golden age.

“Last Dance” was, appropriately enough, Summer’s final bow of the night, and provided the first glimpse of that ubiquitous Seventies icon, the disco ball. Tellingly, the mirrored ball fragmented into several pieces behind Summer as she wrapped things up, gave a half-hearted wave and shuffled off the stage.

She’d played most of her familiar songs (“Love to Love You Baby,” “Sunset People” and “The Wanderer” were among the missing), but in the end it still felt frustrating.  The sad fact is today’s fans attend one or two shows a year; they expect the hits, not a musical sales pitch.

For its part, the Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavilion is the concert venue equivalent of a scrappy Indie rock band, working harder and delivering better than the competition.  They sell their own tickets with reasonable service charges, don’t charge for parking, have a friendly, engaging staff, and a wide array of affordable food and beverage choices.

The acoustics are excellent for an outdoor facility and they even make a top-shelf margarita that puts a few Mexican restaurants to shame.