Last night I had the pleasure to see Holly Williams open for Jason Isbell at the 9:30 Club. At some point last fall I tweeted that the two albums I couldn’t stop listening to were Jason Isbell’s Southeastern and Holly Williams’ The Highway. So you can imagine my delight when I saw them on the bill together. Holly Williams actually replied to my tweet and agreed that Southeastern was an amazing album and said she was honored to be placed in such company. Obviously I know this isn’t what really happened, but in the bizarre concert fanfic I’m writing about this in my head someone who makes these things happen saw this exchange and made this pairing happen.
In case you somehow still doubt my excitement about this concert the fact that I even went should convince you. It’s been at least a decade since I’ve been to the 9:30 Club. This has nothing to do with the 9:30 Club as a venue other than the fact that I live in Baltimore and it’s in DC. That means it’s an hour drive away assuming I don’t hit bad traffic, which one can never assume when traveling from Baltimore to DC especially at the time of day one would normally leave to get to a concert. If I lived in DC I would probably be at the 9:30 Club at least once a week because so many bands I love play there. Sadly they almost always beat out Baltimore for concerts. (Jason Isbell did actually play in Baltimore last fall, but not with Holly Williams. Also I didn’t find out about it untl the week of and then couldn’t go because of a conflict). I have a hard enough time finding people to go with me to concerts when they’re actually in Baltimore, so finding someone to trek down to DC with me especially on a weeknight is almost impossible. I don’t mind going to concerts in Baltimore alone, but the thought of driving down to DC by myself just means it never happens. Hence why I haven’t been to the 9:30 Club in so long. Despite the fact that it was on a work night, I couldn’t pass up going to this concert. Since my husband doesn’t really care about going to concerts and our musical tastes don’t overlap very much I try to be judicious in the concerts I make him go to with me. I didn’t force this one on him, but he came with me because he knew I really wanted to go. I’m so happy I went because the concert was wonderful.
Holly Williams played a 45 minute opening set. She was up on the stage with another guitarist and someone playing the upright electric fiddle. Most of the songs she played were off her album, The Highway. She did a wonderful cover of John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery”. I love to see artists who are obviously in love with the music, and she obviously is. She spoke several times about how excited she was to be touring with Jason Isbell, and talked about how her song “The Highway” is basically her love letter to being out on the road touring. I also noticed that she had some autographs signed on her guitar, which I found extremely endearing. Best I could tell one of them was from Kris Kristofferson. I couldn’t make out any of the other ones. The whole set was great, but the highlight came with her final song, “Waiting on June”. It’s a song she wrote about her maternal grandparents. It is the first song I have ever heard an artist play at a concert that moved the audience to tears. I know my eyes certainly welled up, and that seemed to be the case for everyone around me as well. I saw plenty of people wiping tears from their eyes and when the song was done heard others talking about how it made them teary. It was just a beautiful moment. I hope I get to see Holly Williams some time again soon.
I have written about Jason Isbell many times on this blog in the past year naming “Stockholm” one of my favorite sons of 2013 and Southeastern as my favorite album. I also wrote about seeing him play at the Newport Folk Festival last year. I think I said at the time there isn’t anything particularly special about Isbell as a performer. He just plays some really great music. That I think held true for this concert as well. He joked around with the audience some and was definitely enjoying playing with the members of his band the 400 Unit, but he didn’t do anything especially noteworthy. That said there were some beautiful understated moments. Little looks between him and his wife Amanda Shires, who sometimes plays fiddle and sings backup for him or his attempt to jam with the keyboard player that resulted in some amusing movements from someone whose instrument is stationary on the stage. Speaking of Amanda Shires, she was a joy to watch. I loved seeing her start singing along to songs even when she was far from a mic and obviously not singing backup at the moment. It was usually just a half a line or something like that, but it was like she couldn’t keep herself from singing along.
I was happy to see that Amanda Shires was there. I wasn’t sure she would be as I know she’s been doing some touring of her own recently. I thought maybe Jason Isbell would have someone else playing the fiddle for him last night instead. At first I thought that was the case when she walked out on stage because she dyed her hair blonde, but it was her. There were two songs in the set that really stood out to me. The first was “Cover Me Up” which just felt incredibly intimate and beautiful with most of the rest of the band off the stage and Isbell and Shires playing together. The guy who I had been chatting with during the set change turned around to me at the end of that song and said “That was amazing.” because yeah it was. It definitely got an extended round of applause from the audience, so we weren’t the only ones thinking that. You can check out a performance of the song they did for Austin City Limits a few weeks ago.
The first song of the encore was performed only by Isbell and Shires and was a great cover of Warren Zevon’s “Mutineer”. Isbell mentioned they had been doing some shows in Europe that sounded like it was just the two of them together and they ended those shows with this song. I would love to see a show that was just them. Not that I don’t enjoy the whole band and the livelier songs because I do, but these are the songs that really stick with me.
Also I would like to give a special shout out to the fans at this show. It is the first standing room only show I can remember where I didn’t want to punch someone by the end of the night. We got there early enough that I was pretty much just one person behind the stage. This did not result in me being shoved into the person in front of me as a crush of people tried to move closer to the stage, which I normally expect to happen at a sold out show like this. I also did not wind up with any people who were not standing around me from the very beginning trying to shove their way in front of me even though they got there later than me. There were no crazy dancing people going way out of their allotted space and knocking into me nor any drunk people falling all over me. There also wasn’t anyone standing there taking a million pictures or videos on their phone such that I was watching the entire concert through their screen. So good on you Holly Williams and Jason Isbell fans for not doing a single one of the things that annoy me so much about standing room only concerts at least in my little corner of the venue.