ShoalsFest brought Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Sheryl Crow, Mavis Staples and Amanda Shires together on the banks of the Tennessee River.
There was an “aha!” moment as we made our way from the hotel to McFarland Park in Florence for the inaugural ShoalsFest. We passed a signpost for the Wilson Dam mentioned in Jason Isbell’s Drive-By Truckers track, “Never Gonna Change” and that sign brought home the fact that we were in the part of the US where it all began for him. The place that helped mold him into the songwriter he is today.
The fact that Isbell chose to host a music festival in Florence, speaks to how important his home and the people who live there still are to him. McFarland Park was a particularly picturesque setting for the event. Situated right alongside the Tennessee River, the other side of which is where so much iconic music has been recorded over the years.
As the audience began filing in, the first notes of the day rang out as the Rogers High School marching band belted out their take on “Alabama Pines.” In addition to the main stage, the festival also had the Single Lock Stage at the opposite end of the site. It was here that the amplified proceedings commenced. John Paul White, who is a founder of Florence-based Single Lock Records, not only introduced each of the bands that took to the stage but also headed out front and stood with the audience to watch every set.
The schedule was well co-ordinated throughout the day with the artists on the Single Lock stage playing in-between the main stage acts. It has to be said that, based on the performances at the Single Lock stage, their roster at the moment is extremely strong. The Kernal, Caleb Elliott, The Prescriptions and Rob Aldridge & The Proponents all had great original material and put on excellent live performances. This is genuine songwriting talent and if you haven’t come across these acts they are all well worth checking out.The lineup for the main stage was also top-shelf and a sign of the high standing Isbell has within the music industry. Indeed he mentioned that, early on, he and the organizers had wondered who they would approach if they couldn’t get their first choice performers for the festival but that, in the end, it wasn’t a concern as their first choices all said yes as soon as they were asked.
Amanda Shires kicked off proceedings on the main stage with Isbell and Chad Gamble both sitting in with her regular touring band. She played a great set made up of her own songs along with a mini Highwomen set, which was minus the other Highwomen, but rapturously received nonetheless.
Shires’ songwriting dances on the line between lyrics and poetry and she delivers her songs with such power that you can’t fail to be drawn into her live performance. Her set was a great way to kick things off on the main stage.Mavis Staples was next up, and right away she mentioned the fact that it had taken a long time for her to get back to Muscle Shoals. Indeed, Isbell mentioned in an interview with Times Daily that Staples told him she hadn’t returned to the area since the Staples Singers recorded at Muscle Shoals Sounds Studio in 1972.
Staples has an unquestionable stage presence and Rick Holmstrom and her band provide a great platform for that unmistakable voice. The set included a cameo from Isbell, who stepped out to play with Staples but the biggest cheer was reserved for the moment Swampers bass player David Hood stepped out to play. Make no mistake, whilst this was a set loaded with nostalgia, Staples is as relevant today as she has ever been. If you want proof of that, simply listen to her new album We Get By or look at the list of artists she’s collaborated with recently.Third up was Sheryl Crow. She took to the stage with a huge smile on her face which honestly didn’t budge for the duration of her set. She genuinely looked as though she was having the time of her life and she projected that feeling out to the entire audience. After a storied career like Crow’s, which is filled with so many great and recognizable songs, she could select any number of tracks and it would sound like a greatest hits set but it has to be said that she certainly broke out some classics from her catalog for this show (along with new material from her latest release Threads).
Amanda Shires made her first appearance of the set to duet on “Strong Enough” with Isbell later stepping out to perform Bob Dylan’s “Everything Is Broken” which he recorded with her on Threads. For the rest of the set, it was just Crow and her fantastic band doing what they do best – although they were joined by some impromptu dancers in the form of Shires and friends who couldn’t contain themselves and headed to the stage to dance it up as the set reached a climax.At 9pm, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit took to the stage. We’ve reviewed a number of 400 Unit shows at Loud Hailer and it’s fair to say that Isbell and the band are a particular favorite of the site. Their set at ShoalsFest spanned theirs and Isbell’s recorded work and was delivered with their usual style and passion. It was also nice to hear some new music in the form of “Overseas” which had some great guitar lines/tones played by Isbell on his Strat that were very Knopfler-esque. This evening, there was also the added element of Isbell looking like he was walking on air! He and the whole band genuinely looked like they were having the time of their lives on stage.
In our last two reviews, we’ve compared the band to Petty and The Heartbreakers and watching them again here, you can’t help but draw comparisons. This is a band of friends who have played together for a long time and can clearly read one another’s intentions on stage without thinking. There is a true feeling of community among the band and amongst their fans and Isbell is writing music that matters in a world where a lot of songs (like many other things in the world at the moment) can be single-use/disposable assets.
During a recent interview with Steve Lukather on Loud Hailer, Steve was lamenting the fact that he didn’t feel many of the younger/current generation of bands will celebrate 40 years together (in the same was as The Heartbreakers, Toto, The Stones all have). Hopefully, he catches a 400 Unit show soon as it may restore a little of his faith. This is a band that you just feel are on their way to becoming an American institution and will be playing on well into the foreseeable future. Indeed, given Isbell’s knack for capturing what is going on in the world around him in such an emotional, relatable way he’ll probably be writing songs when he’s 85 about using a bedpan that will still be capable of making a Georgia man cry…..
As the last notes rang out and the lights went down, the crowd slowly filed out of McFarland Park. It’s a pretty good bet that everyone who attended will have left with a couple of new friends and had an experience they will not soon forget. It’s also a certainty that everyone will be hoping ShoalsFest becomes an annual event.
It’s fair to say that this was a resounding success for the fledgling festival and Isbell, along with the whole team who helped him put the event together, deserve enormous credit. Credit also has to go to the audience and the people of Florence Alabama for creating such a friendly and appreciative atmosphere that made the day that bit more special.
We’ll certainly be looking out for the press release for ShoalsFest 2020 and you should be as well!Words by: Phil Walton
Photos by: Kirstine Walton