Jason Isbell took the stage with the vision and presence of a seasoned star.
Twenty-fours after one of the worst snowstorms in recent Madison history might not seem like the optimum time to stage a live nightclub show ambitiously titled "The Rock And Roll Revival." Indeed, the sizable snowdrifts lining the streets surrounding the High Noon Saloon seemed simultaneously peaceful and funereal, neither of which would lend itself to the kind of blazing glory that each of the evening's main performers -- Jason Isbell and Will Hoge -- practice with such expertise.
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, a crowd of the rock-and-roll faithful emerged from Madison's snowbound apocalypse on Thursday night, aiming to re-ignite the flame with the help of two of the finest young roots-based rock musicians currently on the landscape.
Dawn Landes provided the opening set for the evening, and her blend of pop melodies and new-wave energy set the evening off on exactly the right tone. Although her ensemble appeared to be yet another folk-pop three-piece, fronted by a pretty pop songbird, she and her band immediately distinguished themselves through their instrumental eclecticism -- the main thrust of guitar, bass and drums was complemented by an electronic rhythm sampler and a French horn -- and the sheer beauty of Landes' songs. Her ethereal voice provided the perfect accompaniment for her sweeping songs, and her well-played set the evening off perfectly.
Will Hoge clearly had the crowd on his side, as evidenced by the many (mostly female) fans who screamed, sighed and sang along with most of Hoge's tunes. This was a lucky break for the lanky singer-songwriter, since -- on less sympathetic ears -- much of his set would've sounded like a mediocre attempt at doing the kind of pop/rock/country blends that many 1990s acts more successfully minded during that era.
Several of Hoge's songs specifically recalled Counting Crows, and -- though his vocal instrument proved most versatile -- his noted stage presence proved little more impressive than that of any good bar-band performer. In fact, given his mostly unremarkable material, it seems that Hoge and his band should be content for competing for the title of best bar band of the world. At his best, like on the righteously boogie-ing "Sex, Lies And Money" or the gloriously anthemic "King Of The World," Hoge captured the enthusiasm of the crowd inside his rootsy sonic blend, but -- for the most part -- he seemed little more than a workmanlike pop/rock craftsman, content to work the groove of the willing crowd.
Thankfully, the crowd gave him the kind of loving responses that his songs so desperately need, making Hoge's set a pleasant diversion that -- though he tried -- never achieved a higher level of intensity.
On the other hand, Jason Isbell took the stage with the vision and presence of a seasoned star. The former Drive-By Trucker, Isbell has made Madison one of his regular tour stops, and -- given his fiery performance this evening -- it's easy to see why local audiences respond so strongly to him.
Running through the highlights from his remarkable debut solo album, as well as Truckers highlights like "Never Gonna Change" and "Outfit," Isbell captured the eclectic brilliance of his native Muscle Shoals in the potent variety of sounds that he unleashed throughout his performance.
With his band The 400 Unit sounding as powerful as his former employers, Isbell firmly established himself as a major young talent, whose abilities as a rock-and-roll warhorse will greatly transcend any perceived "revival." At his High Noon performance, Jason Isbell sounded like the future. And that's the best we can ask for.
Rock and roll is here to stay.