After having a year off, Shoals Fest returns and is bigger than ever as it expands from a one-day to a two-day festival weekend.
We’d put together a specially curated playlist for our journey from Chicago to Florence for Shoals Fest and as the miles ticked by and the playlist rolled through tracks from Reunions, the latest release from Jason Isbell and 400 Unit, you couldn’t help feel that it was a perfectly titled album from the trip at hand. After the pandemic put paid to a 2020 installment of Shoals Fest, it was time to get back together at the beautiful McFarland Park in Florence Alabama and it felt like it had been a long time coming. The festival lineup also had a distinct “Reunions” vibe to it with Isbell mentioning in the build-up that the acts picked for this year’s festival were all personal favorites that he was excited to bring to their hometown.
This year the festival was expanded to two days and both days were kicked off by Jason Ringenberg who played beneath the trees, entertaining kids and adults alike as Farmer Jason, the character he initially created to entertain his kids. Ringenberg, of course, is best known for his time in Jason and the Scorchers, a band which he formed in ’81 and which later won the Americana Association’s Lifetime Achievement award. It’s a band that had a huge impact on the musical landscape at the time. Indeed, Isbell was quick to point out from the stage later in the weekend just how influential that band had been for many of the musicians gracing the stage over the weekend.
First up on the main stage day one was Cedric Burnside, who took to stage with his guitar alongside Reed Watson (who is also a partner in Single Lock Records – Burnside’s label) on drums. Born in Memphis and raised in Marshall and Benton Counties in Mississippi and with some serious musical lineage, Burnside is definitely a musician who is on an upward trajectory. It was the perfect way to kick off the weekend as Burnside held the attention of the audience with his take on classic Hill Country Blues.As Amanda Shires walked out onto the stage, she noted that this was her first solo show since March 2020. There were no signs of rust, however, as she launched into a great set which included “Wasted and Rollin,” “Eve’s Daughter,” “Look like a Bird” and “Parking Lot Pirouette.” She looked genuinely delighted to be up on stage performing and made it a family affair as she was joined by Jason, who stood off to one side providing guitar throughout the set, and also, towards the end of the set, by her daughter Mercy who ran on to the stage to dance with her Mom. Next up was Candi Staton, an artist with a long history with the Shoals who recorded extensively at Fame studios throughout her career. Her set was made up of one hit after another and she joked with the audience prior to “I’d Rather be an Old Man’s Sweetheart” that she would need a man who’s around 105 now to live up to the lyrics! Indeed, it’s barely possible to believe that Staton, whose vocals were flawless throughout and who constantly moved around the stage, barely sitting in the chair that had been set up in front of her mic, is 81 years old. It was a great set and it was fantastic to see an artist so closely tied to the Shoals music scene performing back in the place where it all started for her. Lucinda Williams explained as she was helped out to the front stage that she was still recovering from the stroke which she suffered in 2020. She noted that this had been one the biggest tests life had thrown her way but that this (performing music) was her medicine. She was fresh from a string of dates supporting Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit on the road and the fact that she performed from a chair for most of her set did not diminish the power of her vocals or her all-round performance, if anything her performance seemed to gather power as the set went on and she was on her feet (along with most of the audience) for the final three songs of the set. Williams is a truly world-class songwriter and it is a treat to see her perform in any context but it was downright inspirational to see first-hand the willpower along with the amazing power of music that propelled her through her set. It’s fair to say that the audience was well and truly warmed up by the time Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit took to the stage on Saturday evening. Loud Hailer has covered multiple Isbell and the 400 Unit shows (including their performance at the inaugural Shoals Fest two years ago) and it’s honestly hard to remember a show where Jason has looked so happy to be up on stage. He was beaming throughout the set and made sure to thank both the audience and the other acts for making this such a special event. The set was, as usual, a treat and featured a number of songs from Reunions which, it has to be said, is an album that only gets better the more you listen to it. Hearing the tracks performed so passionately live takes their power/impact up another notch. With an inspirational and exciting day one firmly in the books, we couldn’t wait to see what lay ahead for day two.
You can check out our coverage of day two of Shoals Fest 2021 here.
Words by: Phil Walton
Photos by: Kirstine Walton