Outdoor music events, especially the free ones, have been a long-overlooked staple of the summertime Americana experience. Baseball and mom’s apple pie have certainly earned their places in the pantheon of all things quintessentially “American Summer,” but there is something unique about the way that live music has a way of uniting communities, particularly in the Northeast. Here we have roughly four weeks of decent weather between extreme bone-rattling cold, pea soup-ian heat and humidity, days upon days of rain and seemingly endless traffic. The bandstand area in many an old New England town served as equal parts gathering place, outdoor dance hall, and focal point to generations of starlit first dates, first kisses and first concerts.
While many of those bandstands have gone underutilized (unless you consider being populated by spray-paint and skateboard-wielding after-school teens ‘utilized’) and otherwise fallen into disrepair, the free outdoor music scene is still alive and well in New England. LL Bean has done their part to keep it that way in their hometown of Freeport, Maine. Located along the saw blade that is the Maine coastline the 7900-person town of Freeport sees its population balloon over the summer, as men, women and children of all ages descend upon the area in search of beaches, hiking and mountain biking trails, and a good deal on fleece-lined parkas.
Serving as a sort of cloister amidst the cathedrals built by Leon Leonwood Bean, Discovery Park holds a series of free, open-air concerts every summer. The park is intimate; for years, the Freeport locals were known to leave camping chairs set up on the lawn all summer, claiming their annual seat as though it were a South Boston parking spot in mid-January. More recent years have seen a “crackdown” of sorts (remember, this is small-town America) – overnight setting up of chairs and blankets will not be tolerated. The result is scores of locals and visitors alike jockeying for position early on show mornings, though it’s worth mentioning that even the furthest “seat” away offers a great sightline at less than a hundred-or-so feet away. Not exactly Red Rocks Amphitheater we’re talking about.
Saturday, August 16th saw Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit serve as the latest bring their act to Discovery Park. The Muscle Shoals-based outfit took the stage toward the end of what has been an textbook 2014 summer day: warm-but-not-hot and sunny during the bulk of the day, thickening “boy it sure looks like it’s gonna rain” clouds by late afternoon. The 7:30pm start time meant that the first notes of set opener “Stockholm” were met with the dark blue and purple hues of a late summer overcast sunset.
Isbell and the boys (wife and part-time member of the 400 Unit Amanda Shire is currently out on a solo tour of her own) have toured in seemingly incessant fashion in support of Southeastern, the critically-acclaimed album that has cemented Isbell’s shift in prefix from “former Drive-By Trucker” to “singer-songwriter extraordinaire.” Case in point: after a few days off upon returning from another European tour, the US jaunt that brought the band to Maine on a Saturday night was preceded by dates in Richmond, Virginia and North Adams, Massachusetts on consecutive days, and followed immediately by dates in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Someone needs to buy that man’s team an atlas.
Anyway, there’s a reason that demand for Isbell’s time has been so popular over the fourteen months since Southeastern’s release: the album is THAT good. For exactly that reason, eleven of the album’s twelve tracks were spread throughout the two-hour set (“Elephant” was the only omission). At this point, the 400 Unit are a finely-tuned machine; arguably the tightest working band running at this point. It would have been understandable for the band (or any band) to appear as though they were phoning it in at this point of the tour cycle. However, Isbell and his band share in an appreciation for the music, for THEIR music, and present as categorically incapable of “phoning it in.” The rhythm section of Chad Gamble (drums) and Isbell’s longtime friend Jimbo Hart (bass) were in lockstep all night, providing an airtight, dynamic backdrop against which the dueling guitars of Isbell and Sadler Vaden and the keyboard/accordion of Derry deBorja could soar. While Vaden is an accomplished axe man on his own right, many of his leads and melodies were of the understated variety, leaving much of the front-and-center heavy lifting for Isbell himself.
Isbell’s voice was perhaps the overall star of the show. The nature of the bulk of Isbell’s lyrics force him to dig deep when playing live, to tap into some raw, visceral emotions night in and night out. Whether it be a tale of a young man preparing to murder his classmate’s abusive father (“Yvette”) to a longstanding and bloody family feud (“Decoration Day,” originally performed while Isbell was a Drive-By Trucker) to songs that mention his own battles with addiction and recovery (“Super 8,” “Cover Me Up” and more), Isbell frequently closes his eyes and finds that deep, dark place to draw from. But don’t let that fool you; a smile rarely left Isbell’s face during the breaks between songs, and he’s got a well-known penchant (check Twitter) for bringing the jokes, the butt of which, on this evening, were Kenny Rogers’ recent transformation into something resembling Tom Hanks’ desert island co-star in Cast Away and how you can tell someone’s from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Okay, so maybe that subject matter doesn’t exactly sound like it would make for your typical free, outdoor, ‘men, women, and children of all ages’ type of show. But a quick look at the list of past and future acts that have played LL Bean’s Summer in the Park series reveals the likes of songwriting heavyweights like Josh Ritter, Jeff Tweedy, Matt Nathanson, Brett Dennen and Keb’ Mo’. The current trend in American singer-songwriter fare, at least here in the Northeast, is not exactly Peter, Paul and Mary or Rosenshontz’ Teddy Bear Picnic. Summer is short; there are only so many Saturday evenings to go around. As such, we don’t really have time to mess around with watered down music. Yours truly once heard jazz-inspired British songwriter Jamie Cullum compare the sort of wit and sense of humor that it takes to survive in places like Boston or his native London, given our geographic areas’ respective penchants for frequent terrible weather. So while Isbell’s music and lyrics are rooted in the culture and the soul of Alabama, the band’s precision tuned sound made for a perfect outdoor midsummer’s evening show. And yes…the rain held out!