Just a few short days before the official start of summer Philadelphians crowded together under the hot sun for what may have been one of the best shows to take to the stage at Festival Pier. Opening for Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell was Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls.
All the way from the UK, Turner and his band took the stage right on time at 6:00 pm to a large group of fans. It was clear from the second Turner and the Sleeping Souls appeared that many people in the audience were there to see them (I even overheard one woman saying she was there just to see Turner and leaving after his set). “Now who’d have thought that after all/something as simple as rock ‘n’ roll would save us all.” True words from the band as they opened their brief set with “I Still Believe” from 2011’s England Keep My Bones. Followed by “The Next Storm,” Turner gave the crowd plenty of positive vibes to keep the show going. With openers like those two tracks, it was easy to see this was going to be an excellent night all around.Turner announced this was their 1,912th show and continued to play eight more songs for the hyped up crowd. The performance included songs like “Glorious You” and “Photosynthesis,” which are great examples of Turner’s stellar songwriting. From start to finish, interacting with the crowd, introducing his band, and bringing up a small lad (with a sweet Jason Isbell dinosaur shirt) to play harmonica, Turner and the Sleeping Souls kept the crowd on their toes and happy. They closed out with “Get Better,” singing, “We could get better, Because we’re not dead yet.”
Songwriting at its finest was displayed by each performer at Festival Pier that evening. Next up was Jason Isbell, who is never, ever a disappointment. He gives his fans 100% all the time, and his shows are always worth every damn penny that ticket may have cost you. The Grammy award winner kicked off his set with the title track from last summer’s album, Something More Than Free. One of the best songs Isbell has ever written, in my opinion, is “Decoration Day” from his time with the Drive-By Truckers. Fun fact, the album came out 13 years ago to the date of this show at Festival Pier. Isbell made the announcement before performing the song. Also on the list of stellar songwriting is “Cover Me Up,” a love song to his wife and band member, Amanda Shires (violin). He told the audience he wrote it before she was his wife, but if he played it for her and it was a shitty song, she would not ever be his wife. Luckily, it is far from shitty.
Other highlights of Isbell’s set included the fun sing-a-long “Super 8,” “Never Gonna Change,” and “Codeine.” “This is the part of the show where we bring out the big blue accordion,” he said of “Codeine” as keyboardist Derry deBorja got ready to play it. Closing out the set was “Children of Children.” Every time Isbell comes to Philadelphia, he tells the tale of being hungover on New Year’s Day 2000 when the world was supposed to end, right here in our city. He became a Mummer for a day along with a few friends and had a blast holding up backdrops as he paraded through the city. Come back anytime, Jason.
Unlike some venues, Festival Pier kept things moving quickly and each performer showed up right on time. It only took a few seconds of Chris Stapleton being on stage for me to realize that this was going to be one of the best performances I’ve seen live in my 15+ years of attending concerts. “Nobody to Blame,” this year’s ACM Awards “Song of the Year,” was the first song from Stapleton, with Morgane Stapleton (wife and bandmate) by his side. Many of the songs on his set list were from Traveller, last year’s debut album which won Best Country Album at the 2016 Grammys. Sorry to the guys in the crowd (standing by me, of course) who kept yelling “Parachute” after every song Stapleton performed. He didn’t play it. Like Isbell with the Drive-By Truckers, Stapleton also performed songs from his time with the SteelDrivers- “Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey,” “If It Hadn’t Been for Love,” “Midnight Train to Memphis.” Songs like “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Here Anymore,” a sweet song for Stapleton’s father, reminded me of classic country songs I would hear in my mom’s car growing up. Stapleton has a voice that is straight out of decades ago, and it is incredibly refreshing. His duet with Morgane on “You Are My Sunshine” made me (and hopefully the rest of the audience) feel like I was down at Ernest Tubb’s record shop catching something special during a midnight jamboree.
Stapleton is a good time. He threw in a few verses of “Freebird” (yep, that “Freebird”), before going into “The Devil Made Music,” and sang a fun little dittie that introduced us to his band members. The only downside to Stapleton’s set was that after so much talk of getting stoned and drinking whiskey, there was far too much marijuana being passed around and no whiskey in sight. His encore began with, well “Whiskey and You,” but as the crowd cheered and said goodbye, Stapleton gave us one more. “I’m not done yet,” he said before “Sometimes I Cry.” The night was filled with top notch performers and some of the best singers/songwriters out there right now. Shortly before Chris Stapleton left the stage, he thanked us all and said “you can be anywhere you want to be tonight, and you chose to be here with us.”
– Brenda Hillegas