Amanda Shires at Duling Hall (Jackson, MS – August 31, 2014)
But for an amber alert, it was the perfect Sunday evening at Duling Hall in Jackson, Mississippi. The place was crowded (in a good way) with folks who didn’t have to work on Labor Day, and they heard Amanda Shires and her rockin’ little combo play a helluva show. The amber alert wasn’t much, really, but because it went off on a lot of the phones in the room it sounded like a tornado siren. Shires was in the middle of introducing her bass player, Stephanie Dickinson, when it started. Never missing a beat, she picked up her own phone to check, made a joke or two (well assisted by guitarist-husband Jason Isbell) and carried on. It went off again right at the very end of the show, but no one noticed or cared, because she and Isbell were in the middle of a beautiful cover of Warren Zevon’s Mutineer.
Shires is blonde now, though she posted on Instagram recently that she was “about done with this blonde business.” Decked out in a black romper, she opened the show a cappella. She walked on stage in the dark, ostensibly to check her instruments, so the initial quiet was replaced by chatter, but she walked to the microphone and started singing Kudzu, a song about falling in love. She sung right through the chatter and the pre-show music as the crowd got quiet and the music faded and the stage lights came up. Todd Snider and the entire PGA Tour could learn a lot from that approach. Just do what you’re going to do and don’t be so worried about audience noise – if you do it right, it’ll work itself out. It did for her.
Speaking of Todd Snider, Shires could give him a run for his money in a story telling contest. She has a knack for telling stories that are funny at each sentence. Her comedic timing that lets the audience get their laughs in installments as the story winds on. She knocked it out of the park with the story behind Bulletproof, one of several songs off her latest album that she played this night. Tiger Bill in Tampa gave her a brown paper bag after her show, and she naturally assumed it was weed, since he was all hippified and smelled like a skunk farm himself. But no, it was a tiger claw, with blood on it, and he said it would make her bulletproof. My synopsis does not do the story justice. All I can tell you is that we laughed a lot about Tiger Bill. And we laughed about her grandma from Mineral Wells, Texas, who’s like a Facebook cop, lurking to promote Bible reading. And about her Twitter encounters with Sir Mix-a-Lot. And a lot more. It was an evening of laughter.
I suspect some in the audience were there because they heard Isbell would be a part of the band. I saw Isbell play in her band at an Americana Music Festival showcase a couple of years ago and really didn’t expect much more than some nice guitar licks out of him, but this time was different. Make no mistake, it was an Amanda Shires show all the way. She owned the stage, singing her songs, telling her stories, doing it 100% her way. On the other hand, the George and Gracie give and take between them during her stories and song intros added much to the show. Isbell’s guitar playing didn’t hurt, either, and at one point she complimented him on his solo, noting that it wasn’t “shitty”. She even let him play a couple of songs, and the two he played fit the situation well – Traveling Alone, which speaks in a way to his decisions to get sober and get married to her, and Alabama Pines, which absolutely demands a fiddle player of her caliber.
Ms. Shires left the fiddle on its hanger for about half the show. She started with an electric guitar and then later switched to a ukulele. She has a casual style with these instruments. It’s like, “yeah, I can play these, too, you know,” and she handles them in a way that meshes quite nicely with the phrasing and vocal delivery of her live performance. But when she pulled the fiddle out, everything changed. The crowd was ready for it, waiting, even, and she did not disappoint. She played it first with Isbell on his songs, then kept at it for the second half. A highlight of her fiddle work was Look Like A Bird. Stephanie Dickinson brings out a bow for the upright bass to lead it off, and they jam, then Shires takes the song, and the show, away with her fiddle and voice.