Music fans of South Carolina, we need to have a chat. While I used to specifically limit my rants on the following subject to just folks in my hometown of Charleston, this venue can now allow me to take my sermon statewide. Please, please, puh-lease, can someone explain to me why someone would buy a ticket to a concert, and then stand there with their back to the stage talking over every song?
It happens at the majority of the concerts I attend. I’m not talking about a show at a dive bar like my beloved Tin Roof in West Ashley, but rather the higher-profile shows at places such as the Charleston Music Hall, The North Charleston Coliseum, and the North Charleston Performing Arts Center (PAC). It was at that latter venue this past Sunday night that I was treated to the latest example of someone who had shelled out the dough for a concert ticket and then seemed to make it a point of ignoring the show in favor of babbling with the guy next to him. It’s a shame too, because it was a truly epic show. Jason Isbell currently sits at the top of the heap of Americana artists. The last three albums by the Drive-By Truckers alumnus have all proven to be ridiculously catchy collections of songs, including his latest, The Nashville Sound.
After a rousing opening set by the Philadelphia band Strand of Oaks, Isbell took to the stage with his band, The 400 Unit and kicked right into “Anxiety” from the new record. With the help of Charleston’s own Sadler Vaden the band built a momentum that didn’t stop until the last notes of the encore faded toward the rear seats of the PAC. New songs such as “Hope the High Road,” “White Man’s World,” and “Last of My Kind” blended well with older tunes like “24 Frames,” “Something More Than Free,” and “Speed Trap Town.” After each song near the start of their set Isbell introduced each band member, saving Vaden’s name for last. “Born of rock and roll,” announced Isbell, relinquishing the spotlight to his lead guitarist. Isbell himself is no slouch when it comes to teasing licks from an electric guitar, so Vaden has no doubt received a true rock and roll education playing with the elder band leader.
Some of the evening’s highlights included a rowdy performance of “Super 8,” a superb version of “Stockholm,” and a crowd-pleasing dip into Drive-By Truckers territory for “Never Gonna Change.” He even cleverly diffused a sensitive situation in the orchestra section when he acknowledged a large sign made by some fans between songs. “Okay, I see you folks from Killen, Alabama,” said Isbell, pointing to the banner being held by some folks halfway back in the lower section of seats. “I’m sure the folks sitting behind you will appreciate the fact that I’ve mentioned the sign, so you can put it down.” Later songs performed included “Flying Over Water” and “If It Takes a Lifetime.” During “Cover Me Up,” which Isbell wrote about kicking his dependency on alcohol, the lyrics “I swore off that stuff” received some of the loudest cheers of the night, despite the fact that many who were reacting the loudest were raising cups of beer in a strange sort of oblivious salute. All through the show a spectacular light show, which featured a Sailor Jerry style sculpture of an anchor and sparrow that pulsated with different bright colors, punctuated the music onstage.
Sounds great so far, right? I mean, Isbell has always been a triple threat through his singing, guitar playing, and songwriting, but he just seems to get stronger with each new album of heartbreakingly catchy songs. The sold out crowd at the PAC was positively eating the music up, well most of them anyway. Back in row X where I was sitting the conversation continued loudly and with ever-increasing obnoxiousness. The only respite came when one of the chatterboxes left to get more beer. The final straw was during the encore. Isbell and the 400 Unit, which also features Isbell’s wife, violinist Amanda Shires, started the encore with “If We Were Vampires,” one of the more beautiful songs on The Nashville Sound. “Maybe we’ll get forty years together, then someday I’ll be gone, someday you’ll be gone,” sang Isbell, although it was tough to hear over Drunk and Drunker to my left. They were still yakking it up about anything besides what was happening right in front of them. I caught the eye of one of the guys and shot him a look, only to have him raise his hands in mock surprise at being wordlessly called out. I’m assuming it was mock. Perhaps I’m giving him too much credit. The conversation continued and I gave up. Fortunately the rest of the encore was supercharged enough to almost drown out the idiots. “Palmetto Rose,” a song Isbell wrote about his love of Charleston and South Carolina (the chorus goes “Lord, let me die in the Iodine State!”) gave way to an eleven-minute-plus cover of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Whipping Post” played as a tribute to the recently deceased Gregg Allman. Isbell and Vaden traded guitar licks in a way that would have drawn appreciative nods from Dickey Betts and the late Duane Allman had they been there.
It was a barn burner of a show, the final performance of the current leg of the band’s summer tour, and I was unfortunately an unwilling witness to at least two people who missed 75% of the show due to indifference. I know some will likely think I’m overreacting at what happened, but I still maintain that for shows where there is assigned seating and tickets that cost $40 and up apiece, a little common courtesy is expected. Perhaps we need a mascot with a catchy slogan to promote the concept of shutting up at shows. Smokey the Bear reminds us that “Only you can prevent forest fires,” and Woodsy the Owl implores us to “Give a hoot! Don’t pollute!” Perhaps we could enlist a grizzled roadie character to tell us “Cut the crap! Shut your trap!” That’s just how my mind works though.