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 montereyamericanfestival.com 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.