Magic, Madness and Myth in Monterey

The ghosts of the past were all over the place – after all, this is the place where Janis, Jimi and Otis tore up the place at the Monterey Pop Festival, which coincidentally recently celebrated its 45th anniversary -  but the mood at the first annual Monterey Americana Festival this weekend was definitely in the here and now.

Although the event,  headlined by cultural hero of the moment Jason Isbell, was criminally underattended, despite lots of good ink in the local press and a genial job of emceeing by veteran local music journalist Mac McDonald., the crowd made up in enthusiasm what it lacked in numbers.

And Isbell, ever the Southern gentleman,  lived up to his Muscle Shoals roots by delivering a fierce set that caught up the close knit crowd with its intensity, ardor and finger-licking chops. (He and the band even took a break from his sometimes doleful rep by delivering a note perfect rendition of the Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Rocking.’’) To all intents and purposes, he could have been playing Shea Stadium - or a Southern dive. Lost in the notes and the lyrics, commercial considerations seemed to fall by the wayside, and if he was disappointed by the turnout, it was impossible to see in the letter-perfect set.

I’m relatively new to the Isbell cult – missed the Drive-by Truckers years, the exile from main street and knew of his subsequent recovery from substance abuse only through  the extensive media hype surrounding his new work (although in this case, hype is the wrong word), but watching the husky auteur in action was instructive.  This is probably just me, but listening to Isbell working-class laments like “Decoration Day’’ or “Outfit’’ felt a damn sight better, and more authentic, thanSpringsteen’s overtures in the same neighborhood, closer to reading the poetry of James Dickey than the grandiose verse of Sandburg.

And honestly, hearing Isbell and the 400 Unit band perform “Danko/Manuel,’’ the dirge to the late, great members of the Band, is beyond description. Trust me. 

There weren’t no flies on the other acts, either.

Jim Lauderdale, resplendent in a turquoise outfit, did not disappoint with his George Jones/Gram Parson tribute, “The King of Broken Hearts’’ and “You Don’t Seem To Miss Me,’’ famously covered by the Possum and Patty Loveless. His shaggy dog stories about close encounters with Buddy Miller and their brand of household cleansers (“all natural products, of course’’) and attempts to stalk his old running buddy Nick Lowe in London were also entertaining, as always. 

The wonderful Carrie Rodriguez also performed, glad to be in Monterey and away from the “inferno’’ of Austin this time of year,  bringing virtuosic fiddle talents and beautiful vocals to songs including “It Ain’t Me,’’ “I Cry For Love’’ and, as an encore, a lament  favored by her grandmother, “La Punada Traperda,’’ which she translated, loosely, as “The Twisted Knife of Love.’’

Oh yeah, Kansas City born Ashley Raines did not disappoint with his unique lap steel guitar sound, and an unapologetic cover of “Dixie,’’  and even the opening act, the fetchingly named Stryder Callison and the Jackwagons entertained in the unseemly brightness of the noonday sun.

But the event, and the evening belonged to Isbell. I caught some of the other musicians watching him from the side of the stage, smoking  with expressions that ranged from admiration to appraisal: How does he manage to do that?

Good question. The festivities continue tomorrow, with bigger crowds expected, hopefully including an influx of Santa Cruz stoners to see stone soul comic poet Todd Snider (fiddler Amanda Shires , who plays in his band, is married to Isbell), Texas legend Joe Ely  and Camper Van Beethoven co-founder Victor Krummenacher

Tickets are still available at or at the gate, so get there if you can to make sure this becomes a regular tradition, not just a one-off. It’s too good not to miss. Janis and Jimi would surely approve.


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Comment by B. Miller on July 11, 2013 at 9:42pm

The Rolling Stones song that Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit performed was "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" (not ... Rocking)

Comment by Paul Wilner on July 11, 2013 at 10:13pm

I stand (or sit) corrected...

Comment by Paul Dionne on July 12, 2013 at 7:44am

Thanks Paul, very instructive, descriptive account of what Isbell is like and can do live, he is one of the best things you can get to these days and the Springsteen/Sandburg, Isbell/Dickie is spot on.....

Comment by Paul Dionne on July 12, 2013 at 7:49am

Oh, and I know Jason's on a career record, and it's a really great one but the media storm about his recovery from drinking is way out of proportion (to me), the new one doesn't carry any better songs than he's always been up to....I'm glad for him, and his recent marriage, but some things just don't need to be repeated ad nausem....

Comment by Paul Wilner on July 12, 2013 at 10:42am

Thanks, Paul. I don't know too much about his previous problems except what I've read in the papers so I tried not to dwell on it  (also, it's basically none of my business). But it makes sense to me that an artist's work post "recovery" is consistent with what he or she has done before - same demons, same angels - and I don't care that much for the bogus narrative of repentance that seems to go with these things. Anyhow, it was a rocking (and knockin') gig.


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.