Randy Rogers Band
With Jason Isbell, Whiskey Myers and Sunny Sweeney
Gexa Energy Pavilion, Dallas
Saturday, August 1, 2015
The world of alt-country is a diverse place, which means that putting several bands that fall under this umbrella on the same bill can sometimes result in a pretty disparate concert experience. This weekend, the first-ever Big City Bash took place at Gexa Energy Pavilion, with Sunny Sweeney, Whiskey Myers, Jason Isbell and Randy Rogers Band, and it was a whirlwind tour through the genre’s many musical terrains.
Sweeney, who replaced Stoney LaRue after his domestic violence arrest last month, played first. Her girl-power brand of Texas country is woefully underappreciated by fans of the genre and its critics, but her set on Saturday seemed to lack a little oomph. Blame it on the heat, because Sweeney is an incredible artist and performer. Her set was also a little too short, but that made sense considering that there were three more acts to get through before the night was over.
Next up was Whiskey Myers, a sort of 21st century, countrified version of Lynyrd Skynyrd. The band has a pretty bizarre look on stage, from the rhythm guitarist with a mane that would’ve made 1990s Taylor Hanson jealous, to the lead guitarist who looked like the lost member of ZZ Top. Myers' set hit its high point with “Ballad of a Southern Man,” a defense of Southern life that starts out with the mention of a .243 caliber rifle. Throughout the set, the guitars were much more on display than the muffled vocals, largely because lead singer Cody Cannon could benefit from stepping away from the mic a few inches.
Much of the set felt like a dueling guitars experience, a sort of Phish-style jam, but with metal riffs and plenty of shredding. At moments it was exhilarating and interesting, at other times it felt boring and indulgent. It was hard to tell when one song ended and a new one began, if only because much of this band’s work sounds the same, resembling a harder-rocking version of Cross Canadian Ragweed. Myers’ success on the Texas country circuit makes sense, but their music certainly doesn’t represent the best of what this genre has to offer.
Fortunately, the best that the entire world of country music has to offer right now was up next: Jason Isbell. For whatever reason, Isbell was slated to play before Rogers, and the order absolutely should have been reversed. Isbell has yet to play a solo headline set in Dallas — his appearance at Winstar at the beginning of the year was shared with Sturgill Simpson — and that is a real shame. From the opening notes of “Palmetto Rose,” it was clear that this was to be the best music of the evening.
At least to some. At the beginning of Isbell’s set, the crowd was largely still getting beer and wandering around. In quieter moments, the roar of conversation on the lawn drowned out a little of Isbell’s playing, and it felt disrespectful. But as the set wore on and Isbell started to play familiar favorites from Southeastern like “Stockholm” and “Cover Me Up,” the crowd really started to pay attention. In this set, Isbell demonstrated exactly why critics are raving about him as the man who is helping restore some of country music’s shine.
Vocally, Jason Isbell is the most impressive artist out there right now. On recordings, some of Isbell’s vocal rawness and growl is buffed away, even when you consider how stripped-down his records are. As he played through “Declaration Day,” a track that always seems to make it into an Isbell set, you could almost see the crowd visibly start to pay attention. It was his guitar, though, that really made people take notice.
With vocals like that, it’s easy to forget that Isbell is one hell of a guitar player. As he swapped out guitars and banged through his too-short setlist, you felt grateful that Isbell, a recovering alcoholic, had decided to “sober up” and “swore off that stuff, forever this time.” It would have been a real shame to have lost a talent like this. When Isbell wrapped things up, the crowd jumped to its feet, a man in the lower sections even yelling “Jason! Jason! Play one more!” over and over again.
But everyone was there to see Texas country's most beloved artist, and after a too-long reset — even 10 minutes is too long when it’s 100 degrees outside — Rogers took the stage to a roar from the audience. Everyone here had sweated their asses off for four hours to see the Randy Rogers Band, and Rogers was determined to make it worth their while. Opening with “It’s Too Late For Goodbye,” Rogers had everyone in the pit dancing, and most importantly, shutting the hell up.
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Rogers is the best thing that Texas country has produced in a really long time. His flirtation with Nashville was brief, and besides, it would also have been a real shame to see a guy with this much talent and charisma dumb his sound down for the mainstream. He's a Texan, he makes Texas country music, and Texans are absolutely thrilled to have him. Even after the show had worn on for almost four hours in the heat, the fans eagerly stuck out his set. The only shame is that Wade Bowen wasn’t playing some of “Hold My Beer” with him. Bowen had a show elsewhere, otherwise he would have been the best possible replacement for LaRue.
By the end, the inaugural Big City Bash felt sort of disjointed, but that was okay. In this current climate of country music, being able to hear four completely different artists and four completely different styles on one stage for less than $50 is rare and impressive. In the end, though, Jason Isbell and the Randy Rogers Band were more than good enough to justify the buckets of sweat and heat exhaustion and $10 beers.