Jason Isbell With Sturgill Simpson WinStar World Casino, Thackerville, OK Saturday, January 10, 2015
I've got a brother-in-law named Joe. He's a good dude and he likes music well enough, but he isn't the type to seek out new stuff, especially from lesser-known names. I took him to see Telegraph Canyon a few years ago and he enjoyed it thoroughly, but that show didn't send him into digging for other bands like them that he might get into. Joe regularly kids me about going to see a band "no one's ever heard of," which is when I reply with, "If it isn't Bachman-Turner Overdrive or Lady Gaga, you haven't heard of them."
Saturday night's show at Winstsar World Casino, just north of the Texas/Oklahoma border would've been perfect for Joe. Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson aren't names that anything less than an active consumer of indie music, especially of the Americana-flavored niche, would recognize with immediate certainty.
Yet they both are exceptional artists, and in front of 3,000 people packing the casino's Global Events Center, they were indeed rock stars and magnificently showcased the skills which have made them two of the biggest names in the burgeoning Americana scene. This wasn't what anyone would consider a typical casino-style booking. In the next few weeks, Aretha Franklin and Alabama, Franki Valli and ZZ Top will play the same room. That group of shows makes sense. And after it was all said and done Saturday night, this bill did too.
Lest we forget, Dallas experienced a bout of Sturgill-mania back in November of last year when Simpson sold out two shows at Club Dada in Deep Ellum. Weeks after Simpson left town, his debut LP, High Top Mountain, was the best-selling vinyl at Good Records in Dallas and not the buzz-generating 2014 record that shot him to relative stardom, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.
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As for Isbell, he's fresh off an impressive domination of 2014's Americana Music Awards in Nashville when he took home the prizes for Song of the Year, Album of the Year and Artist of the Year. Since the release of his stunning 2013 album, Southeastern, which was just after he became sober and married Texas-bred songstress Amanda Shires, Isbell has won awards, graced magazine covers and has finally shed the distinction of "that guy who used to be in the Drive by Truckers."
Isbell swung through Dallas for Index Fest in 2013, just after Southeastern's release, before the praise began to steamroll in but hasn't been this close to Dallas since. Make no mistake, this show was packed with people wanting to get their own taste of Sturgill-mania and to hear the Isbell songs that they've obsessed over for so many months in a live setting. (I couldn't have been the only one.)
In short, Saturday featured the men responsible for the best Americana albums of the past two years. Had this show been in Dallas, judging from the enthusiastic crowd, even roomy venues such as Gas Monkey Live and South Side Ballroom would've been busting at the hinges. The night had a local feel to it as many Metroplex residents made their presence in Oklahoma felt through social media. This was the place to be for country fans of North Texas, oddly enough.
Dressed super-casual in a dark crew neck sweater, blue jeans and low-top Chuck Taylor's, Simpson took the stage first. The venue, a mix of nice hotel conference room and suburban mega-church, saw a surprising number of people filling the doors and aisles as the first four songs of Simpson's set rolled on. But he and his three-piece band worked the spacious stage with the fervor of a grizzled, still-hungry headliner, not just someone sharing the spotlight. After opening with the romping "Sitting Here Without You," followed immediately by a slow, psych-tinged offering of "Water in a Well," Simpson and crew were on-point. As it would turn out, the attendees who missed the first few songs effectively missed a sizable chunk of the show, as Simpson played for an hour before splitting. But he made the most of his quickly-gone hour, as whoops and hollers blasted from the seated patrons.
This was one of those awkward seated shows when everyone around me decided to keep their asses planted. Perhaps in other sections of the massive room this wasn't the case, but for the radius of many hundreds of people around me, sitting politely during a fiery tune, only to offer applause, fist-pumps and hat-tips at the end of each tune, it was. On occasion, people would stand to clap or yell at the end of a tune, only to quickly sit down as if their Wranglers had banquet chair magnets sewn into them. Maybe sitting during a show is policy at Winstar, but even with tremendous performances taking place such a vibe was a bit of a buzzkill -- as was the 60-minute set, if we're all being honest.
Still, Simpson had the crowd in the palm of his hand. The manner in which people were singing along and shouting requests had me wondering if a mass exodus would take place the moment he walked off-stage, leaving Isbell with row upon row of stacked chairs to sing to. In songs such as the bluegrass gospel-flavored "A Little Light Within," Simpson earned swells of mid-song cheers when he expertly kicked his vocal twang into a high-powered growl. During "Long White Line," the sing-along power of the crowd was considerable.
Even though Simpson dealt with a couple of sound-tech issues from the stage (even addressing the booth in mid-song at one early point), he handled what is certainly one of the largest rooms he's played as a "co-headliner" with road-tested skill. He had the bravery to ask for requests from the crowd, which resulted in a killer offering of my Metamodern's most emotionally powerful song "Just Let Go," which he admitted to rarely playing live.
After bringing the crowd to near-climax with his cover of When in Rome's "The Promise" and "Turtles All Way Down," perhaps the two most attention-grabbing songs from Metamodern, Simpson was done. No encore, not performing for a moment over an hour.
A few folks were seen trickling out in between sets and I could detect a few empty chairs in my immediate surroundings, but the room was still a crowded one and after Isbell opened with a tight "Stockholm," it was plain to hear that the couple-thousand-plus still there were as excited as I was to hear songs from Southeastern. Perhaps knowing he would also play for only an hour, the Alabama-native turned his first four tunes into a full-on rock mini-set. Southeastern tunes "Flying Over Water" and "Super 8" were ecstatically received, but "Decoration Day," a menacing Drive by Truckers-era story song, surely forced a handful of shoulders to separate from their respective sockets as it was completed.
With effortless skill, just as Simpson had done earlier, Isbell switched from a vigorous boil down to a slow simmer when he, with only his keyboard player accompanying him, performed "Elephant." The story of a man spending time with a close friend, and almost lover, dying of cancer was pristine and powerful. Say what I may about having to sit all night and the relatively short set times, but the sound in the cavernous venue with large video screens on both sides of the stage was crystal clear when it counted the most.
Isbell's ability to make the listener actually listen to the stories inside his songs provided the highlight of the entire evening. As he and his band got ready to perform "Cover Me Up," Isbell told a touching story on how he can't dedicate this song to anyone else's wife, because it was written for his, and thanked members of his wife's family for coming to the show. The song isn't just about love, but it's a genius mix of sensuality and personal history. When Isbell, recalling a promise he made to Shires, sang "I sobered up, and swore off that stuff, this time for good," the crowd went ape, offering the loudest mid-song cheers of either set (for sobriety!). It was a goose-bump moment and conveyed the power of how Isbell can spin an intensely personal moment into an immaculate song better than most.
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As he often does, Isbell closed out the all-too-short night of tunes with a cover, this time choosing a groove-tastic rendition of the Rolling Stones iconic "Can't You Hear Me Knocking." The extended jam at the song's end did take the group over an hour by a minute or two, but after a group bow, Isbell and his band were gone, the house lights were up and attendees ushered out.
Isbell and Simpson are two of the Americana world's brightest, still-emerging stars. Their names may not have the marquee wattage that the usual casino acts might normally, but the house was packed and electric, regardless. My brother in-law Joe would've walked in skeptical, but would've left as a true-believer. Bachman Turner Overdrive, who?
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