Let me set the record straight right away - I don't have anything against Jason Isbell. He's got some good songs, and as far as I know he's a good guy. I also know that an artist doesn't really control who their fans are, and finally, I know that folks who go to see a headliner often don't pay any attention to the opener. Interestingly, he tends to bring really good bands with him on tour, even when they don't necessarily seem to fit with his fanbase.
For example, a couple of years ago, he brought Centro-matic on tour with him, who I was really wanting to see, so I'm pretty grateful for his good taste in openers. The thing I learned during that show that I didn't know beforehand was that Isbell shows really bring out a crowd that I hesitantly classify (because I hate to overgeneralize) as white trash. Once again, these people pay his bills, so like them or not, they are loyal fans, and I'm sure he's not complaining about that.
Last night, this contingent of fans was present once again, as Jason's concert featured opener Justin Townes Earle, who I have really been wanting to see after hearing some of cuts off of his new album Midnight at the Movies. Overall, JTE put on a great show with his sideman Cory Younts. I was surprisingly disappointed at the sound at the Bluebird Theater last night, as the mix made it extremely difficult to hear the vocals, and honestly, I guess they didn't see a problem with it the whole set, because it was basically the same poor mix all night. Maybe there were extenuating circumstances I wasn't aware of, but nonetheless, I was glad that I finally got the chance to see Justin. He embodies the performance style of the old Western Swing and Country folks well, and does a good job of bantering in between songs (when you can hear it).
The factor that made things even worse was that as the Isbell crowd grew, they were talking through the last half of JTE's set, to the point that it really made it hard to hear two acoustic instruments with vocals (did I mention the mix wasn't good?). To make it even worse, I sat in the back quietly judging the crowd. It really blew my mind that a number of people had worn their Drive-By Truckers shirts to the concert, but that gives you an idea of what the crowd was like. Overall, you could tell that the hipster crowd was basically non-existent, given the complete absence of silly hats.
The final thing I got to see, which didn't have anything at all to do with Jason Isbell, was the experience of watching people come up and talk to JTE by the merch table. He was in a hurry to leave, so I didn't see much, but I got a good taste of what his life must be like. The interaction that stands out was an older man who came up to him to shake his hand, and proceeded to tell him how much his dad's music meant to him throughout his life. Quite a heartfelt comment, but when you recognize that Justin's music career thus far probably includes people like this in every town, you start to recognize how good Justin is doing just to be cordial to these people on a regular basis. Comes with the territory I suppose, and he handled it well from what I saw.
If you haven't heard "Mama's Eyes" yet, go to his myspace and check it out.