By: Derek Jung
I was, admittedly, late to discover Jason Isbell. His former band, The Drive-By Truckers, had played Madison Theater in 2013 while I was interning, but Isbell had already departed 6 years prior and I was unable to attend the show. Fast forward 3 years and I stumbled across Isbell's last album, Something More Than Free, and was immediately hooked by his vivid, personal storytelling, rich vocals, and intimate songwriting. Under his own name, Something More Than Free and its predecessor Southeastern were hailed as masterpieces and helped Isbell reach a broader audience. Before this, however, he also had 2 albums under the 400 Unit name. The newest album, The Nashville Sound, is the first under the 400 Unit name since 2011's Here We Rest. So much has happened in Isbell's life since then - marriage, sobriety, fatherhood - that Isbell is a completely new person. Luckily for us, his gifts as a songwriter have only grown.
After a solid opening set from The Mountain Goats, Isbell and crew took the stage at the mostly full PNC Pavilion. The band covered the vast majority of The Nashville Sound, playing seven of the album's ten tracks mixed with material from the previously mentioned non-400 Unit albums. Isbell's vocals are just as moving live as they are on the album, and his guitar playing was surprisingly stellar. His on stage banter was great, telling stories and jokes in between songs and introducing those in the 400 Unit. But it was his interactions with fiddle player Amanda Shires, his wife, that caught my attention the most. I'm not sure if this is just a stage act, but it was as if he was singing every love song directly at her and for her. It was intimate and beautiful, and their rendition of "Cover Me Up" captured everything that I wanted to experience in a single song. It was a magical musical moment.
The band ended their set with "Whipping Post", a tribute to the late Duane Allman, who passed away in late May of this year. Being one of my favorite Allman Brothers songs, I was thrilled to hear Isbell's take on the southern rock classic, and he did not disappoint.
Check out the band's performance of "Hope The High Road" from The Late Show below.
Hope The High Road
Decoration Day (Drive-By Truckers cover)
White Man's World
Chaos and Clothes
The Life You Chose
Last Of My Kind
Flying Over Water
Cover Me Up
If It Takes a Lifetime
Outfit (Drive-By Truckers cover)
If We Were Vampires
Whipping Post (The Allman Brothers Band cover)
By: Derek Jung
The neo-outlaw country and anti-Nashville establishment movement continues to grow at a monumental pace. Amongst main players like Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell are musicians like Margo Price who are only in the early chapters of their rise. Margo's debut album, Midwest Farmer's Daughter was one of my favorite albums of 2016, and I was very excited to hear the material live. The Third Man Records artist made a stop in Cincinnati on the night of the Acacdemy of Country Music Awards, one of the most establishment country music awards of the year. With that as the backdrop for her show, she showed why her brand of country music is the real deal.
I was immediately struck not only by Margo's stage presence, resembling country legends Tammy Wynette or Loretta Lynn, the latter of which she confessed to have worked with the day before recording some new material, but also the talent of her backing band, The Pricetags, who brought each song to the next level with ease.
In typical country music fashion, Margo treated the crowd to a nice selection of covers, including "Me and Bobby McGee" by Kris Kristofferson and a cover from her former band Buffalo Clover. She also performed two new songs that will be on her upcoming album, including my favorite "It's Ain't Drunk Driving If You're Riding a Horse".
During the show, she thanked us for coming instead of watching the ACMs, adding that "[we] made the right choice".
Yes, we did.
By: Derek Jung
When you're the number one top selling country artist of all time, you can pretty much do whatever the hell you want. So when Garth Brooks announced that he was retiring from recording and touring in 2001 to focus on his family, no one could do anything about it. Even so, he continued to sell millions of albums and fans were eager to hear any news of his return to music. In 2009 he teased fans with a residency in Las Vagas to test the waters of returning to full time touring, and in the Fall of 2014 he began his official comeback tour. Fast forward another two plus years and Brooks and his longtime backing band made their triumphant return to Cincinnati. Saturday night was the opening night of a five night, two weekend slot at US Bank Arena, and the band sounded in mid-tour mode. Probably because they were.
The hype machine for Garth Brooks is pretty legendary in terms of drumming up excitement, support, and (of course) ticket sales. His comeback tour was already on track to surpass the record for highest grossing tour of all time (currently held by U2) when the shows were announced in Cincinnati. Local news outlets had a field day, and the coverage only grew in intensity as shows started selling out. New dates were added and the number of shows in town quickly grew to five, the same number of nights that he played nearly two decades ago. That level of artist loyalty is incredible, but the band definitely made it sound like Cincinnati's five nights were special, something certainly outside the norm, and communicated in such a way to make Cincinnati fans feel like they were more dedicated than other cities. A cursory glance at their tour schedule, however, proves quite the opposite. Most tour stops include anywhere between four and seven shows, and some cities doubled showtimes on the same day. Even Columbus, Ohio has six shows of their own. This kind of fan ego stroking by the band rubs me the wrong way, but boy oh boy did the Cincinnati crowd eat it up.
The format of the show was a bit odd. There were two unannounced openers that performed three or four songs. After each finished, an advertisement for their new album was projected and announced for the crowd. These were very safe, stereotypical pop country artists, and for someone familiar with the music industry, it felt very much like a pitch from the industry to hype up a few new artists on the label. Hard pass on that one, folks.
Garth and his band came on stage to one of the loudest roars from a crowd that I have ever heard. I had to put in earplugs, not because the band was too loud, but because the crowd was overpowering. Garth ate up that energy and ripped into a greatest hits type setlist, with only a few songs from his new album, Gunslinger. The crowd knew every word to nearly every song, and many times Garth would chuckle to himself or comment "wow" when seemingly the entire arena belted the songs in unison word for word. It was truly a sight to behold, but I expect Brooks' amazement was more showmanship than real, because I'm sure every city sounds exactly like we did. Unless he thought Cincinnati was going to be terrible. Which, to be fair, we sometimes are.
The band was a perfect example of what to do with an open stage. I really enjoyed how band members moved all around the stage. Every angle got a great view at some point, and they mixed it up just enough to keep things entertaining. My seat was towards the backside of the stage, and I felt like they were great seats. I got to sit down close, and had a fantastic perspective of the band performing to the larger portion of the audience on the front side of the stage. They were also a good example of how crowd hyping can be too much for a band. Every single member spent time in between songs pointing at people in the crowd, yelling, and fist pumping or gesturing to make more noise. The drummer would even come out of his little ball and wave a towel around. Yes, I get that energy is important, but it felt more like cheerleaders at a sports game than professional musicians at a show. And when it's done nearly every song, it gets old and worn out quickly. To be fair I feel the same way when bands have hypemen, but having it come from actual band members just felt excessive.
Some would argue that all of my complaints here are very nitpicky, and they most certainly are. But I would counter that Garth Brooks is one of the biggest artists of the last half century and should be held to a higher standard than most performers of lesser stature and reputation. All of these complaints aside, the show was phenomenal, the energy and passion exceeded my expectations and I would definitely see him again if the opportunity arose. Garth is still the king of pop country and there's no one even close.
By: Derek Jung
The husband and wife duo of Shovels & Rope have been a part of my life since before their debut album, O' Be Joyful was released in 2012. I was working at my family's RV dealership at the time and the couple spent the better part of two days in the store buying their touring RV. Since then, I've had the pleasure of seeing them three times, and each time the two have been just as kind, appreciative, and polite on stage as they are in person. Seeing their popularity rise through the years has been gratifying for me personally, because it feels good to see such good people find success.
Personalities aside, their debut album was one of my favorites of 2012, mixing folk, americana, country, and bluegrass together with some great harmonies. Their sophomore album, Swimmin' Time, kept the same formula, but didn't have the same magic as their debut, which was fine in my book because it added some solid, upbeat songs to their live repertoire. Last year, they released a collaborative album, entitled Busted Jukebox, Volume 1, artists like Shaky Graves, Lucius, and J Roddy Walston and the Business, but none of those songs were performed live on this particular night.
Madison Theater was sold out, but with a lowered capacity because a number of chairs were set out on the middle level. Even so, the band was pleasantly surprised to see a rock concert atmosphere, and they mentioned this on multiple occasions. Apparently their tour had been, up to that point, in quiet listening rooms, nothing like the audience that night. It had been nearly five months since the band had been on the road; Cary Ann and Michael had just welcomed their first child together in September of last year, and you could tell there was a little bit of performing rust that needed to be shaken off to, as they say, "turn it up to 11". After a few songs, they fell right into their normal rhythm, switching instruments every few songs and rotating in a small keyboard to supplement their beat-to-hell drum kit. They also performed two new songs, "San Andres Fault Line Blues" and a song with a small accordion, which unfortunately was not very audible in the mix. I'll be listening intently for the former once studio versions of these songs are released.
The chemistry and sensuality of the couple hasn't dulled a bit since I last saw them live. The two shared a mic on a few occasions, sweat dripping from Michael's brow onto Cary Ann - yuck! - and they seemingly had an sixth sense in knowing what the other was doing on stage, a testament to their collective talents and also how long they've been performing with each other. For a band that, at first glance, looks like they belong in a dive bar in the South Carolina back country, their enthusiasm has captured the hearts of so many across the country, and they show no signs of stopping any time soon. Shovels & Rope are not to be missed.
Check out a video below of the couple performing on PBS Bluegrass Underground
By: Joseph Kathmann
Oh hey! Who the heck are you guys again? Now that I've gotten that stupid joke out of the way, let's talk about the Opry. This was my second time to the legendary Ryman Auditorium, and it was also my second time seeing the Grand Ole Opry. (Though last time it was at its native residence out at Opry Mills) I wanted to mix things up this time around, so I found a spot to watch the show from the ground level, and wanted to see what things would be like with such a low-hanging balcony blocking my view. Not just in terms of sights, but in sound as well.
I'm not really going to talk about any of the artists who performed at this show, mostly because there's nothing really to report. It was a pretty lackluster day from the Opry, with Ronnie Milsap and Connie Smith being the two biggest names on the bill. And Smith only got to play a song since she was hosting her section so definitely not enough to even say I've now seen Connie Smith. Even though I've seen her both times I've been to the Opry. But I will say there was a young talent who really stood out. Jackie Lee only had a few songs to feature his genuine country voice, but he really impressed me in that short span of time. He's the only person out of the young talent I've seen so far from the Opry (and Nashville as a whole for that matter) that I really think has a shot at being "the next big thing." And he's also signed to Jason Aldean's label. That always helps. Other than him, this show was really about experiencing the Opry in its original home, The Ryman Auditorium.
In one sentence: The Ryman did not disappoint. While watching the Opry sucked (just look at that picture above) listening to it was one of the greatest experiences I've ever had at a concert. I didn't really get to appreciate the acoustics of the venue at the Walk the Moon show simply because those speakers were not built for indie synth pop. They were, however, built for country music, and I was absolutely blown away listening to this show. For once, I could hear everything that was happening in front of me. I could pinpoint every instrument and exactly what they were doing at any given moment. There was no distortion! At all! I mean, how is that possible? Well, even from underneath the balcony this show sounded incredible. I had extremely high expectations for this venue to deliver in its native habitat, and somehow it did not disappoint.
By: Derek Jung
Seeing The Lone Bellow has been something of a religious experience for me. The first time that I saw them live was with my wife at MusicNOW Festival in Memorial Hall, a beautiful turn of the century theater in downtown Cincinnati. The combined voices of the three main members, Zach, Kanene, and Brian, echoed throughout the chamber and repeatedly gave me chills. It was a powerful, emotional experience and one that immediately made me a big fan of the group. Fast forward 8 months and the band returned to the more modest 20th Century Theater across town. I was worried that the grandiose environment of Memorial Hall wouldn't translate to a smaller, more quaint room with poorer sound.
My fears were initially realized with the opener, Anderson East. The band has been on the rise as of late, and they've been helped a lot by airtime on public radio stations like WNKU here in town. I was very disappointed to hear that when the band put any force behind their sound, it easily overpowered the sound system, causing his voice, usually very soulful, to sound distorted and muffled. For a band like Anderson East, where the vocals are supposed to be the highlight of the act, it was bad news. Only when they brought things down a notch, usually for the slower songs, did his voice really shine like it should. And boy, is this guy a special kind of talent. Along with a good selection of songs from his debut album Delilah, the band performed two great covers, one of the Otis Redding classic "Knock On Wood" and Van Morrison's "Tupelo Honey". Definitely check out Anderson East if you get the chance. I love the trend of neo-soul bands right now (St. Paul & The Broken Bones is another that comes to mind here). I have a feeling we're going to be hearing a lot from them in the future.
With the vocal issues of Anderson East, I was really worried that the problem would carry over in The Lone Bellow's set, and it did for a while. You couldn't hear Zach much at all for the first 2-3 songs and the vocal harmonies blended almost completely with the other instruments. Eventually it started getting better, and soon the sound leveled off to being able to hear the vocals fine, but still not being able to quite understand what they were singing. Now, I know many of the lyrics, so that wasn't a huge issue for me, but I can imagine it being disappointing for a newcomer.
Despite the sound, the energy in the theater was electric. Zach's preacher-like antics on stage, arms raised and howling voice, brought all eyes on him. It amazes me how great the three sound together, but boy oh boy do they each individually have great voices. While Zach leads a majority of the songs, Kanene and Brian sing their fair share as well. They did a few "unplugged" songs huddled around a single microphone, which is a gamble if the crowd doesn't cooperate, but thankfully the crowd was engaged enough to quiet down and the result was pretty great. The highlight of these songs was definitely Brian singing "Watch Over Us", which turned into a singalong towards the end.
The most recent Lone Bellow album, Then Came The Morning, was produced by Aaron Dessner of The National, who are originally from Cincinnati. I had the pleasure of meeting the Dessner twins' dad at MusicNOW Festival, and I noticed that I was standing directly behind them and a group of their friends at 20th Century Theater. During the show, Kanene dedicated a new song to one of the women from that group, who I later discovered is battling brain cancer. It was a touching moment and a beautiful stripped back acoustic song that left some of us close by with tears in our eyes. People came up and hugged her husband during the next few songs. The band later thanked the Dessners for all that they've done for them. I was hoping for an appearance by Aaron, considering The National are on a break, but had no such luck.
The finale of the night was a great rendition of "Purple Rain" featuring Anderson East and the first opener, Hugh Masterson. The next time The Lone Bellow are in town, I hope they play a theater that compliments their sound a little better, but for what we got, I went home satisfied.
Check out a full concert video from 2013 of The Lone Bellow in Boston.
By: Joseph Kathmann
Featuring Carrie Underwood, Ricky Skaggs, Logan Brill, Exile, Ashley Clark, Charlie Worsham, Connie Smith, Bobby Osborne, Jeannie Selly, and The Whites
Having recently moved to Nashville, I was eagerly anticipating my first show at the Grand Ole Opry. My expectations were high, but I really didn't know what to expect. After all with that many big country names on a bill you'd think the show would have to last about 6 hours, but this show was crammed into exactly (and I mean EXACTLY) 2 hours. So ultimately, the coolest thing about the Grand Ole Opry was also the worst thing about the show: the bill. Each artist only had time for 2-3 songs in their 15 minute set, and that stood true for everyone, from opener Logan Brill to headliner Carrie Underwood. While ultimately I enjoyed my experience at the Opry, I couldn't help but leave wanting more from the artists. After all how could you be satisfied with a 2 song set from old-school country star Ricky Skaggs? I sure wasn't.
It was obvious from before the first curtain that going to the Grand Ole Opry was all about the experience. The show was about being at the Opry itself, not the artists involved. But music fans everywhere have clearly moved on from the Opry's formula. Nearly everyone in the audience was waiting for Carrie Underwood, and they only got somewhat involved with everyone else before her. Now, maybe this is unfair to the Opry and its formula. After all, Underwood's fanbase is mostly teenage girls and recent female singer-songwriters who have moved to Nashville hoping to "make it" and don't understand or appreciate the history of the genre because they're so focused on wanting to be superstars themselves. I know this may sound cynical, but I was pretty insulted when people were talking through and all but ignoring bluegrass legend Bobby Osborne's set. The man is one of the greatest bluegrass artists of all-time, and I was honored just to be around to witness a set of his. So songwriters: if you want to be taken seriously in this town you gotta understand where your craft came from. Pro tip.
I know I had a similar complaint with the crowd in Metric's set in the Imagine Dragons show, but I'm going to keep hitting on this point. The old school artists that have inspired a ton of artists today don't get nearly the amount of respect they deserve from today's music fan. But, how was Carrie Underwood's 3 song set? Well, it was.....fine. Again, 3 songs really isn't enough to get a lot of momentum going for your set. But, I did appreciate Underwood deciding to go the route of the Opry and not the route appealing to her fans by only playing 1 of her somewhat popular songs and 2 old-school country songs her fans had clearly never heard of, and the songs she did go with all showcased her incredible voice. That's the reason I think Carrie is a must-see country act. While most of her songs are pretty surface-level and are more pop-country than anything else, seeing her live really gives you an opportunity to hear her voice, which I believe is one of the best in the business. Hearing her voice in a recording just doesn't do it justice.
So, ultimately, seeing a show at the Opry was fun. While I wish the sets were a bit longer, and I was a little disappointed with the crowd at this specific show, I was still very happy to see so many great artists in such a short amount of time. The Opry has mastered the set transitions and it was really quite amazing to watch from a technical standpoint. I hope to go see the Opry again, but I might decide to wait until there's no superstar on the bill. I think this would lead to a crowd who's there just to experience the show and not any particular artist. Because if you're there for just one artist, you're gonna be disappointed.
By: Derek Jung
I'll be the first to admit to not being familiar with or a fan of the vast majority of modern country music. I think that much of it sounds the same musically, the song topics are all similar, and all of the bands' images are cleaner than their spit-shined cowboy boots and brand new cowboy hats. Let this be my little disclaimer to this review.
The Reds and Major League Baseball invited Billy Currington to perform two songs in between the Futures Game, featuring up-and-coming minor league stars and the celebrity softball game, featuring old time baseball favorites and, well, celebrities.
I've never heard music performed at Great American Ballpark before. I missed the other concerts there that they've had in the past, and I went in assuming the acoustics were going to be pretty bad. They were.
Previously, when artists like Paul McCartney performed, the stage was set up in the outfield so that the majority of the ballpark was facing the stage. Yesterday, the stage was set up around second base and faced the home place/third baseline area, which meant that everyone in the outfield seats and most of the first baseline were looking at the back of the stage. Not only this, but the speakers were lined parallel to the stage so the sound that made its way to those people was only the echo that bounced off the seats behind home plate. Needless to say, the listening experience was very poor because of this. And given that most of the outfield wasn't even being used for the celebrity softball game, I don't understand why they didn't set the stage up there and not worry about tearing it down so quickly afterwards. Unless they were worried about messing up the outfield grass for the main events Monday and Tuesday.
From what I heard, Currington and the band sounded fine to those who could hear them. There wasn't a huge performance involved and they pretty much stuck with the script of the two singles that are popular at the moment. I'm curious as to why MLB didn't just have Justin Moore, Cole Swindell, Jordin Sparks, Macklemore, or even Snoop Dogg perform before they played in the softball game. Hell, even Nick Lachey was there. Overall it just felt like an unnecessary time waster, but at least I can cross Mr. Currington off the list.
We Are Tonight
Who are we?
Derek Jung and Joseph Kathmann -- Just two ordinary (debatable) guys that love talking about music. You can read more about us here: