First Aid Kit and Jason Isbell keep country music relevant at Bluesfest
Different musical threads run through Bluesfest every year. There are a slew of acts who play the blues that the event was built on, a hefty dose of soul bands, a smattering of acts dedicated to bringing the funk and other sounds from all across the planet on display.
If you wish, you can stick to one genre and dodge the rest. Or, like most tend to do, you can take a little bit of everything and broaden your musical horizons.
Recent years have seen the festival bring some of the brightest names in what can loosely be deemed Americana. The kind of folk and country music inspired by outlaw acts like Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, under-the-radar songwriters like Townes Van Zandt and Gram Parsons, and the big guns like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson.
Americana is as stupid a term as we have for a style of music, especially when it becomes obvious that some of its best purveyors aren’t from the US at all.
Sweden’s First Aid Kit are one of the most stunning bands on the planet right now. Their appeal goes well beyond the close harmonies that have always been sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg’s most potent weapon.
They sole Bluesfest show marked their first Australian performance in three years, after a slot at Splendour In The Grass in 2014.
Since then, a lot has happened. Klara became engaged and separated, and much of the pain of that manifested in Ruins their deeply sorrowful break up album of this year. They’ve toured extensively and, as a result, completely burnt out. They’ve learnt to deal with fame and success, and learnt how not to.
All of this experience has made them better at what they do. They were already very, very good, so it now feels like they’ve lifted to a new level entirely.
At Bluesfest, the band drew one of the biggest daytime crowds of the entire festival. With four excellent records to their name now, they’re able to contract a setlist packed with crowd favourites.
Some songs, such as ‘My Silver Lining’, were met with more excitement than others. And while earlier tracks like 2012’s ‘Emmylou’ remain beautiful, they also show how much more sophisticated the women’s songwriting has become when put up against the brilliant heartbreakers from their latest record.
The set remains varied, thanks largely to their excellent, tasteful supporting band. They made these beautiful songs shimmer like they should, the trombone makes ‘King Of The World’ nice and lively, while the entire group gathered around one mic for ‘Hem Of Her Dress’ was brilliant fun.
The most powerful moment of the set though came thanks to last year’s single ‘You Are the Problem Here’. Following the noisy indie rock track, Klara gives an impassioned speech about rape culture in modern society and calls upon the men in the audience to stop being complicit.
It showed that, while First Aid Kit are making music in the country and folk tradition, they’re not beholden to the themes that are most commonly associated with it.
The same can be said for Jason Isbell.
Early in his Bluesfest set, he played ‘White Man’s World’ from his latest record, last year’s The Nashville Sound. In it, he laments not standing up to racism in his past, and worries about the future his daughter faces.
He then played ‘Anxiety’, a crushingly relatable song about an illness that is so common and causes so much pain. His songs also touch on sobriety, violence, feeling out of place and mortality, to name just a few of the weighty topics broached.
This man has been writing songs for a hell of a long time and he has more good ones than perhaps anyone else on this year’s Bluesfest bill.
The lilting and depressing ‘Speed Trap Town’, the frenetic ‘Cumberland Gap’ and the massive ‘Flying Over Water’ all show different sides of Isbell’s songwriting nous and the versatility of his band, the 400 Unit, at bringing these songs to life.
The five-piece band really does sound incredible. These might be Americana songs, but they’re have rock’n’roll coursing through their veins when The 400 Unit play them.
He also treated us to a string of his best work with former band Drive-By Truckers, and ‘Decoration Day’, ‘Outfit’ and ‘Never Gonna Change’ all stand up beautifully many years on and represent an important and formative time in this great artist’s career.
The only thing missing here is Isbell’s wife Amanda Shires. With a young child and a solo career of her own she’s not always able to be a part of the band, and her presence would have made this show even better. This is particularly evident in the heartbreaking ‘If We Were Vampires’, perhaps Isbell’s best ever song (though there is stiff competition there) and one that we’ve seen works beautifully with the couple in duet mode.
It’s a credit to the festival that both of these acts were allowed 90 minute sets to flex their considerable songwriting and performance muscles and show the Bluesfest audience the breadth of their catalogue.
While artists like Jackson Browne and Robert Plant represent great songwriters of the past, these two acts show us there’s no time like the present.
Americana, folk, alt-country… Call the genre what you will; it’s in damn safe hands with artists like this in this kind of form right now.