I love St. David’s Episcopal Church, because they host not one but two of my favorite venues in all of SXSW. Their chapel and hall are both excellent places to watch shows: no hustle and bustle, (usually) no noisy electronica, no nonsense, just good singer/songwriters. This year is no exception. I stepped in during Henry Wagons‘ set of rockabilly-inflected folk and was immediately impressed. Wagons’ pointed sense of humor, arresting baritone voice and jaunty tunes struck a great chord in me. The audience laughed through the punchlines and his fun stage antics, even getting involved when Wagons would call out various members of the audience as the “inspiration” or “dedication” of the song. I absolutely loved the set, and was glad to “point my head in the general direction of” Henry Wagons.
Amanda Shires played her whole set on a ukulele, which made this uke player incredibly happy. Her deeply lyrical tunes hung on each word she delivered, with husband Jason Isbell’s intricate single-note guitarwork providing melodic counterpoint to her voice and uke. She played several songs off her new album, which will be released at a date to be announced: fans of women songwriters with strong lyrical and melodious voices should take notice.
I was there in St. David’s to see Jason Isbell, who I first saw on one of my first days in Auburn, AL. As I am about to voyage out of Alabama in search of the next adventure, seeing Isbell was a fitting bookend to my time in the Yellowhammer State. Isbell’s roaring voice and emotional storytelling were absolutely gripping in St. David’s chapel; his voice and guitar filled the space. He played tunes off his new album Southeastern, which comes out June 11th, and I can tell you that I can hardly wait for the album. The new tunes were evocative lyrically and melodically, made even more poignant by Shires’ keening fiddle accompaniment. Isbell also played the crowd favorite “Alabama Pines” (which will most likely be how I remember Alabama) and even the Drive-by Truckers’ “Decoration Day.”
The audience was in his thall: when he sang a few tunes about war veterans returned to the South, the crowd was especially noisy in its appreciation. At the end of the set, he received a well-earned standing ovation immediately. It’s not often that you get to hear a master songwriter perform in an intimate setting, but that’s what happened last night. I thoroughly recommend Jason Isbell to you.