I spent my 43rd birthday at a Jason Isbell concert, which – on its face – isn’t noteworthy. After all, I’ve spent plenty of birthdays, New Years Eves, and anniversaries at concerts. But those were when the world was normal. In 2020, we’re all in the middle of public health scare that has decimated the live entertainment world.
The last time I was at a concert was, ironically, on my wife’s 43rd birthday. We saw the Avett Brothers in the Dominican Republic on the last night of their At The Beach destination festival. COVID-19 was already a thing on a global level, but the US had yet to really feel a major impact of the virus.
A few weeks later, as events like Coachella, Jazz Fest, and Bonnaroo were canceled, we realized how lucky we were to have gotten one last great live music experience in before we had to self-quarantine. Because, you know, it would be a few weeks before our country got everything under control and we had Mountain Jam planned for June.
But then Mountain Jam canceled too, along with livelihoods of the entire music industry, from club owners to Grammy winners. A few weeks turned into over seven months.
The industry adapted. Band after band started doing live streams, both free and paid. Months passed, and artists started holding drive-in concerts. But, truly live shows were few and far between, and none seemingly well done.
This past spring, Isbell’s wife Amanda Shires started a nightly YouTube show, IsoLounging. They’d play each night, and while it was great, it wasn’t the same as a real live concert.
Which brings us to Sunday, October 11, and seeing a Jason Isbell concert in the middle of a global pandemic on my birthday in rural Tennessee.
The Caverns is exactly what it sounds like – it’s a cavern. But this one, nestled in the picturesque hills of Pelham, Tennessee, has been converted into an underground venue that can fit over 1,000 people. The PBS program “Bluegrass Underground” shoots there, and since the venue’s inception, everyone from Del McCoury to Wyclef Jean have graced the stage.
The folk who run it are in the same boat as the entire music industry: trying to figure out how to run a business in the midst of a global pandemic. They got together with Jason Isbell, and from October 8 – 11, they put on socially-distanced shows on a large stage that had been erected at the mouth of the cave.
In my years of going to concerts, very few have been as well-run – or as cathartic – as the one on my birthday, the last night of the four. Putting on a good concert experience with all of the proper safety precautions presents unique challenges, but the venue and artist really tackled them all.
Ticket buyers committed to a roped off “pod” of two, four, or six people who purchased their tickets together. Concert-goers could only enter the venue at a designated time (for us, 6:30 pm), and to get in you had to answer relevant health questions and get your temperature taken.
Once inside the venue’s grounds, you had to wear a face mask anywhere on site except your pod, which you could only leave to use the restroom.
In advance, we were able to pre-order beer, water, snacks, and merch from a phone app, and our order was in our pod when we got to it. When we needed refills, we used the same app and it was brought to directly to us – there was no walk-up service and transactions were credit card only, which limited touch points for exposure.
Isbell and the 400 Unit released his newest album “Reunions” during all of this, and hadn’t played many of the new songs at all. He kicked off the four-night run with the song that leads off the album “What’ve I Done To Help,” and I think, just by putting these shows on, he answered the question. Sure, the subject matter of the song itself is about another issue entirely, but…I’m sure, for those who were at night one, at the very least the title took on new meaning.
At all the three previous shows, Isbell & band played for about 90 minutes door to door – shorter than his normal show length – so we knew that it would probably be a relatively early night. But, every second of the show was precious, especially when you really don’t know when the next one will take place.
Isbell clearly felt the same way – several times he commented on how happy the band was to be playing in front of a live audience again. And, it was genuine – these artists miss being on the road and doing what they love just as much as their audiences miss the live music experience.
As de facto album release parties, the band’s setlists each night were heavy on “Reunions” material. On the 11th, they played eight of the ten songs off of the new release. It’ll be interesting watching the songs develop and mature once the band is able to truly road-test them.
While getting to see any music was great, “Tour of Duty” was probably the most compelling tune of the show. Both guitarist Sadler Vaden and Isbell were on acoustic guitars, and they traded tasty licks that bordered on bluegrass. While both are great guitarists, there’s always something special about seeing some killer acoustic flatpicking.
The encore, though, was worth our seven-hour roundtrip. “Go It Alone” is a standout song from “Here We Rest,” and it is especially powerful played live.
But, closing a show with Isbell’s Drive-By Trucker tune “Never Gonna Change” always gets the crowd going. As Vaden and Isbell went toe to toe towards the end of the song, delivering one blistering solo after another, my soul was fed something it hadn’t tasted in months.
The venue staff dispersed the audience in an orderly fashion, coming down each aisle to send the pods back to their respective cars – and 2020 pandemic life. It really was a well-oiled machine.
I don’t know when I’ll get a regular diet of concerts again, but I do know that Jason Isbell and the folk at The Caverns, at least for a weekend, had the live music experience finely tuned.
It made for as perfect a birthday as I could wish for in 2020.
Be Afraid, 24 Frames, Only Children, Overseas, Hope the High Road, It Gets Easier, Tour of Duty, Letting You Go, What’ve I Done to Help, Running with Our Eyes Closed, Something More Than Free, Alabama Pines, Elephant, Super 8, Dreamsicle, Cover Me Up
Encore: Go It Alone, Never Gonna Change