After a fun trip to Chapel Hill to see Tune-Yards, it was on to Spartanburg, South Carolina to see Jason Isbell & John Prine. An amazing bill. I’ve never seen John Prine live in person. I had seen several performances on TV. I was familiar with his reputation as a performer. Chatty and charming. As much of a storyteller with his stage banter between songs as he is through song – I was expecting to see a legend. Mr. Prine did not disappoint.
The surprise came from the opening act who I was seeing for the 11th or 12th time since 2009 (I’ve lost track). Sitting three rows from the stage (front row – orchestra right), I was expecting to see Jason Isbell open the show solo with this acoustic guitar. Much to my surprise, he was accompanied by his full band – The 400 Unit. Yet, the set Isbell & Co. delivered was far different from the usual guitar-slinging rock and roll show I’ve come to expect. Instead it was a masterfully restrained set that showcased his strength as a songwriter. Mostly consisting of songs from Southeastern, other highlights from past albums included “Streetlights,” “Alabama Pines,” and of course the DBT-classic, “Outfit.” The showstopper of Isbell’s set was his performance of “Cover Me Up.” It was met with a standing ovation from the sold-out auditorium. As an opening act, Isbell delivered a performance that was easily one of my three favorite experiences seeing him live.
John Prine and his band took the stage with an unassuming presence, as if they were saying, “Hey guys, don’t mind us. We’re just gonna play some songs. You can listen if you want, it would be greatly appreciated.” As I mentioned earlier, I’ve seen John Prine perform on television several times (most recently here). However, John has been through some major procedures due to cancer (one surgery within the last year), and so I wasn’t sure about his most recent condition. By the first word of “Spanish Pipedream,” my concerns were put to rest. John has taken criticism in recent years for continuing to tour and play the same old set of songs. After now seeing him perform live in person, I can forcefully say – who gives a shit?! I wouldn’t care if a man had only written 10 songs. If they were as good as anything John Prine has written, that man could tour for 40 years and play those same 10 songs till he died on stage. It wouldn’t bother me one bit. So, sure, along with his routine opener, he played 43 year-old songs from his debut – “Sam Stone,” “Six O’Clock News,” “Angel from Montgomery,” and encore closer “Paradise.” However, I didn’t expect to hear “Donald and Lydia” and it was his performance of “Hello In There” that was the highlight of the entire evening.
After performing “Grandpa Was a Carpenter,” John talked about all of the time he spent around his grandfather in his carpentry shop (as the song says). So much time with him, in fact, that as he grew older (though still a young man) he would always gravitate towards older folks at social gatherings. He just felt more comfortable around them. “But, now, I’m one of them,” he said, and that’s when he poetically segued into “Hello In There.” On his first album, alone, John Prine takes on the voices of many characters – even an old woman. As a young man, he would perform this song as a character, but now, to the uninitiated, the song could be mistaken for autobiography. It takes on such a different meaning, and a different feel now that he performs at the age of 68. That wasn’t lost on a single soul in that auditorium. It’s been years, maybe never, since I’ve been in a room so entranced by what was happening in that moment. If Isbell’s “Cover Me Up” was an emotional kick to the gut, Prine had just ripped my heart out of my chest.
That night I had the pleasure of being accompanied by my good friend Scott and two members of a band he plays in – Center and Kenny. Their band is the Kenny George Band – Kenny of course being the principle songwriter/front-man and Center plays lap and pedal steel. All three guys worship at the very same altar as Prine and Isbell, so it was my pleasure to experience that show with them. Scott is responsible for introducing me to Jason Isbell. Before I saw him, I only had one Drive-by Truckers album, and it was after he left the band. Scott and I shared a common fandom for Ryan Adams that goes back several years. Back when I was squatting at his residence right after college, we’d make late night trips to the bar with Ryan Adams soundtracking our evening. One time, in particular, I can remember six dudes piled into an old Jeep or SUV, windows down, belting out “Oh, My Sweet Carolina” at the top of their lungs for all of Rock Hill to hear.
Scott has had a number of musical ventures over the years. A short-lived pop rock band that was formed at Winthrop, many musical duos, and many more solo performances at “Irish pubs” all over South Carolina. He wasn’t alone back in the late 90s, staying up late playing Dave Matthews tunes. There were many others back then. There still are today. However, I always enjoyed when my friends would just pull out the guitar at a party or in someone’s living room or at the events we used to attend as Episcopalian youth. One night in particular back in the late 90s, I remember Scott asking me if I’d heard of John Prine. That was the first time he’d ever mentioned anyone that we had in common who wasn’t on modern-day radio. Then, he played “Angel from Montgomery” because it was one of the many tunes he picked up from his Uncle Leo. Then we would return to conversations on Dave Matthews. Over the years, random mentions of The Replacements would take place. Then came Ryan Adams… and I have to admit it was when Scott fell for Ryan Adams, that he and I really made a true musical connection.
That’s why it’s been great seeing Scott play with the Kenny George Band. I’ve seen them play twice as a full band now (most recently this past Saturday). You can really tell that Scott is having a blast. Scott has an incredible knack for singing harmonies. He and Kenny sound excellent together. They are a talented group of guys. Kenny is a very promising young songwriter. Don’t get me wrong, his existing output is already quality stuff, but the newer songs get better and better. There’s a natural artistic progression happening there. I’ve written about my college days, and how I was obsessed with Americana/Alt-Country-Whatever-That-Is music. In recent years, it’s slowly made a comeback and almost dominates my music listening time. That’s why the timing of Scott playing in this band couldn’t be more perfect.
I’ve said before (and it won’t be the last time), that this blog is about sharing. I’ve created several playlists that anybody is welcome to download, and a couple of folks have. Today, I’m going to ask you to purchase the first EP by this band. It’s called Gunshy, and it’s available on iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play. If you write the band, maybe they will mail you a physical copy (featuring album art by yours truly). The Kenny George Band is a band that I truly believe in. I don’t blow smoke up anybody’s ass when it comes to music, and I can truly say I’m a fan of this band – no matter who plays in it. When I saw them open for American Aquarium in Augusta, I was standing in the crowd beside one of Scott’s old friends – Brian. Brian is a solid music fan, and has pretty damn good taste in music. At one point, he turned to me and said, “I’ve seen every band that Scott has played in. This is by far the best one.” You said it, Brian. You said it.