Tag Archives: The Criterion

Starting the New Year off Right with Jason Isbell

It is the #1 goal of this outlet and especially for myself in 2018 to see and discuss more live shows. We stress the importance of albums, but in this streaming age, it’s arguably even more vital to go out and support our favorite artists through ticket sales and buying merchandise. Plus, seeing a live performance often provides a new appreciation for an artist you may already love, and it can also make us fans of artists whose studio recordings we don’t necessarily enjoy.

Both of these things happened for me on Thursday night, (Jan. 4th), at the Criterion in Oklahoma City, where I saw James McMurtry and Jason Isbell. Mostly, I’ll keep this focused on Isbell, but I’ll say this about McMurtry–here’s an independent/Americana artist I have respected but never really gotten into in the past. Seeing him live made me understand exactly what people like about his music. Honestly, he’s a better vocalist live than his studio recordings would have us believe, and I enjoyed quite a lot of these songs. It’s a testament to the value of live music in general, and why we shouldn’t pass judgment on an artist solely on the basis of their recorded material.

As for Jason Isbell, I’m not sure I can put into words his ability to interpret a lyric–and not only that, but to take a heartbreaking tear-jerker of a song like “Speed Trap Town” and make it work in a live setting with people singing along to it. He proves that you don’t have to be singing happy, fun songs live to move an audience, or even to leave an audience feeling happier and carefree when you’re done. And my apologies to the song “Anxiety,” a track which I underrated considerably on Isbell’s latest record. Granted, I still prefer the live version, but hearing Jason’s live version makes the studio version all the more authentic and believable. On the record, it’s hard to tell how much of the song is personal to Jason and how much of it is just him writing about this issue for other people; when he comes out and opens a show with a song like this, with all his heart and soul in the words, with all the hopes of bonding with the crowd hinged on that song of desperation and depression, you know it means something to him. He doesn’t come out singing something content, or even something like “Cumberland Gap,” an admittedly emotional song but one which at least is rocking and fun. Instead, he comes out with “Anxiety” and leaves the listener with no illusions about what this is going to be.

And that’s why, when you get to “Speed Trap Town” and all the other songs like it in Jason Isbell’s catalog not necessarily “suited” for such things as live shows, you damn well pay attention. “Last of my Kind” cuts even more in a live setting, and “Hope the High road,” though I still don’t enjoy that song, is more convincing. And you’d have to be a fool to do “If we Were Vampires,” a song about death and treasuring every moment with the one you love as if it were your last, as an encore of all things, but Jason Isbell can, and did.

And all of that works because he sings with such conviction that you feel whatever emotion he’s conveying, and that’s the beauty in live music, and music in general, and what makes Jason Isbell able to connect with so many people and his music able to be classified in so many genres. He just sings what he feels, and the results are proving to be timeless, as he’s becoming the face of independent music and a voice for this insurgency in the mainstream by music of substance and quality. This is exactly the kind of artist you should make it a point to see live even if you’re not really an Isbell fan because he embodies what is unique and beautiful about the experience of sharing live music. And if you’re not really an Isbell fan, don’t worry–after seeing him live, you certainly will be.

Best Live Songs: “Anxiety,” “Tupelo,” “Last of my Kind”

Go See the Turnpike Troubadours Live If It’s the Last Thing You Do

It’s been a weird month for me, and I’m sorry I’m just getting to this now, but trust me, I had to take some time for myself, and it was well worth it. I do expect there to be quite an influx of writing during the next few days because I’ve been listening to a lot of music but haven’t had the time to really sit down and write my thoughts on anything.

But absolutely the first thing I have to address is the live show I saw last Friday in Oklahoma City at a place called the Criterion for the Turnpike Troubadours’ album release party. I’ve now seen Turnpike three times live, and I’m so glad I finally get to devote an entire post to this. I will freely say that in September at Medicine Stone, they didn’t live up to themselves as much, and their show didn’t blow me away on the level that it has each other time, but without a doubt, the Turnpike Troubadours is the best live music experience I’ve had the opportunity to see.

It’s hard to even begin to put into words the kind of brilliance you see at a Turnpike show, but you know all that ridiculous fiddle and guitar and just generally awesome instrumentation? It’s barely contained on their albums, and then you hear it just basically come unleashed in a live setting. There’s nothing like the opening to “Before the Devil Knows We’re Dead” as the band just breaks out into the song, and all hell breaks loose. It’s surreal to listen to a song like “Seven and Seven,” meant to be such a deep and thought-provoking number, be screamed out among thousands of people because somehow this band managed to write it in an upbeat, concert-friendly way. This helped me to enjoy some of the new album more–you’ll see my thoughts on that shortly, by the way–because songs like “The Housefire” work better in a live setting, and suddenly a serious song becomes lively and fun. And then you get moments like “Pay no Rent,” where the songwriting of Evan Felker is on full display, and even if you came here looking for a party, you can’t help but be hit by the genius in these lyrics.

Even having seen Turnpike twice already, “Long Hot Summer Day” is a moment I was looking forward to, just hearing the fiddle over and over for the chorus. At Medicine Stone, they had tended to do this as an encore, but here, they did it as the finale, to ridiculous applause. The encore featured Jamie Lin Wilson, who had been the opener and is another great live performer, and she was there for “Call a Spade a Spade,” a song she appears on in its studio version. The night ended with “The Bird Hunters,” which is amazing in and of itself, because that song is a five-minute, waltzing heartbreak song, and yet, the Troubadours manage to make it something lively enough for the end of a concert. It’s truly special to hear everyone singing along to this, and it makes me go back to Jamie Lin saying that Evan Felker somehow manages to write “deep, thoughtful songs that also make you want to party.” This is extremely rare, and it means both that this band’s writing might be a little underappreciated and also that they’re accessible enough for everyone.

They’re certainly being given greater attention now, but the Turnpike Troubadours are still massively underrated. Trigger addressed this a little on SCM, but it’s a shame that artists like Turnpike and others are struggling to find live audiences outside Texas and Oklahoma because they should be on the level of Isbell and Simpson. NO question. So go out and support the best band making country music today if you have any interest in live music at all.