With Bob Seger, Brandi Carlile, Michelle Branch, Buddy Guy, Chris Isaak, Dwight Yoakam, Flatlanders, Justin Townes Earle and More
Citrus Bowl Stadium, Orlando
Sunday, November 13, 2011
Better than: Being stuck in a mosh pit with no way out.
Day 2 of Orlando Calling began much the same way as Day 1, with plotting, strategizing, and attempts to create a schedule that would allow for seeing every quality band. Simply due to the constraints of time and the inability to be in more than one place at a time, this would not be possible. Science arrived at the latter premise several centuries ago, but those who opted to pit, say, the Raconteurs against the Roots on Saturday have not accepted that reality.
The fact is, with five venues of varying sizes and a lineup the equal of any of its competitors, there's simply no way to take it all in. Some of the acts rarely visit the state, much less South Florida, so the possibility of seeing such desirable draws as the Flatlanders, Dwight Yoakam, Chris Isaak, Brandi Carlile, Michele Branch, Bob Seger, the Doobie Brothers, and more in a single afternoon and evening obviously defied the odds.
Our first choice of the day, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, failed to show due to the fact that all their equipment was stolen the night before. We opted, then, to check out Elizabeth Cook, a Florida-bred singer/songwriter whose casual country recalled Emmylou Harris in her formative years. Her three-piece band, including another noted singer/songwriter, Tim Carroll, offered an easy, breezy performance punctuated by Cook's comments about her upbringing in nearby Wildwood and her parents in particular, who first became acquainted as honky-tonk musicians. Unfortunately, Cook's mood quickly turned sour when a cable fuck-up silenced her guitar and necessitated repairs that took time out of her already abbreviated set.
"Hopefully next year they'll be more together than this year," she remarked with no small degree of ire. "You technical guys employed here, do you have a plan?" Happily for her, her repeated requests for more of the champagne she had consumed backstage didn't go ignored, and that ultimately seemed to assuage her.
The Flatlanders were much anticipated, although attendance for their performance was surprisingly scant. A true Americana supergroup, the band -- fronted by singer/songwriter/troubadours Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock, each among Austin's finest -- was originally formed 40 years ago. The one album they originally recorded together became the stuff of legends, at least until five or so years ago, when they re-formed and began releasing a new series of collaborative efforts. Still, despite the sparse crowd and an abbreviated set much too compact to fully display their wares, the trio, their bassist, and drummer demonstrated why reverence is duly deserved. The blend of Gilmore's high-lonesome vocals, Ely's authoritative presence, and Hancock's ability to anchor it all emphatically made their set more of an event than most of the crowd likely realized. Selections from their own song stash and a cover of Townes Van Zandt's "White Freightliner Blues" served as a sampling that merited much more.
Tough choices on a hectic afternoon
By midday, it became evident that there would be limits to what we could accomplish. Some of our precious time went to a new young band from New Hampshire that called itself Aunt Martha, an oddly named ensemble that didn't have a single female, much less anyone who looked matronly enough to actually be an aunt. Heads-down earnest and clearly possessed by a studious sensibility, they made imaginative music, enough so to invite future listens to a new online album titled Norway.
After catching a brief portion of Michelle Branch, with the Doobie Brothers playing a stadium show, the desire to indulge in some oldies proved to be a temptation too great to resist. As it turned out, this venerable band can still rouse a crowd, and though only three members of their classic front line remain -- singer/guitarist Tom Johnston, singer/guitarist Pat Simmons, and the band's multi-instrumental anchor, John McFee -- the band still renders well-worn standards like "Takin' It to the Streets," "China Grove," "Listen to the Music," and "Black Water" with their same trademark enthusiasm. A couple of new tunes from a forthcoming album seemed to fit in just fine, as did new bassist John Cowan, a bluegrass veteran who had no trouble adapting to the Doobies' rocky ways.
Afterward, I rushed over to catch Justin Townes Earle, who dressed in work shirt and specs, resembled not so much his namesake -- or his famous father either -- but rather Sheldon from the show Big Bang Theory doing a turn as Woody Guthrie. Positioned between his two female accompanists, one on standup bass, the other on fiddle, he offered assorted selections from his excellent album, Harlem River Blues, dedicating "Christ Church Woman" to the people affected by the earthquake that devastated the New Zealand city that contributed the title. In contrast to his father's irascible reputation, Earle seemed exceptionally polite, addressing his audience as "ladies and gentlemen" and tossing in the occasional self-deprecating comment to boot.
Still, Earle's announcement that he was about to sing some blues made me think I probably ought to check out the real deal, Buddy Guy, who was performing one stage away. When I got there, Guy was grousing about the fact that the stage manager had given him a five-minute warning to wrap up his set. At 75 years old, this venerable blues man is as feisty as ever, and an ending medley that incorporated riffs borrowed from Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, and Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" showed off both his variety and voracity. He added some flashy technique -- picking the guitar strings with his teeth, playing it from behind his back, and then rubbing it against his backside. While the gimmickry was obvious, his skill still showed.
Two superb showmen and the ghost of Johnny Cash
Speaking of flash, one of the afternoon's most anticipated sessions presented itself in the form of Chris Isaak and his illustrious combo, mostly the same musicians who starred with him in his Showtime series. These guys had their moves down pat, from the matching gray suits that contrasted with Isaak's dazzling red Nudie outfit and, later, a suit all in mirrors to their coordinated choreography, patented rock-star poses, and the good-natured joshing they share among themselves. Isaak himself looks as if he hasn't aged in 20 years, and his stage presence, cool croon, and movie-star looks make him an artist for the ages.
"Thank you for being open to adult language and nudity," Isaak said early on, and although the prudish needn't have worried, the anything-goes attitude was obvious from the outset. Naturally, all the big hits were included -- "Somebody's Crying," "Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing," and a handful of oldies from his new album, Beyond the Sun, a collection of covers that influenced him early on. A steaming version of "Great Balls of Fire" had the crowd going wild, but his version of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" was especially incendiary.
By this point, Brandi Carlile's solo set was well on its way to a conclusion once we arrived. Still, being steadfast fans, we were determined to catch whatever we could. We arrived in time to hear her do her own Cash covers via roughshod renditions of "Jackson" and "Folsom Prison Blues." As she left the stage, the crowd roared its approval and shouted for an encore, but true to Orlando Calling tradition -- at least what we had seen on the side stages so far -- a return to the stage was not to be. That, despite the fact that Carlile was the final performer of the day at that particular venue. The audience finally conceded the inevitable, much to everyone's chagrin.
Despite the fact that Isaak had been a hard act to follow, Dwight Yoakam and his band gave it their all and very nearly succeeded. Perhaps because they were pals and often trod through similar musical terrain, Yoakam took more than a few opportunities to send some good-natured zingers Isaak's way. When the sound of the musical activity in the nearby stadium intruded on his set, Yoakam suggested it was Isaak trying to make trouble. And when they came out for one of the festival's rare encores, he attributed that to Isaak as well. "Chris is making some trouble backstage," he joked. "They asked us to come back out and kill some time."
Still, if any rivalry was implied, Yoakam didn't seem too concerned. He too looks exactly like he did in the '80s, still wearing his trademark cowboy hat perched low over his eyes, with his blue denim jacket, flashy boots, and tight, tight jeans showing consistency to his signature style. (One has to wonder if he claims the patent for today's new trendy skinny jeans.) His swivel hips and shifty legwork also reflect his trademark showbiz stance, as does a backing band intent on rocking from the get-go. Likewise, there was no shortage of hits, from covers of "Streets of Bakersfield," "Little Sister," and "Act Naturally" to classics of his own like "1,000 Miles" and "Guitars, Cadillacs." He also resurrected the ghost of Johnny Cash, offering his own take on "Ring of Fire" while varying the tempo so that it was almost unintelligible.
It was left, then, to Bob Seger, white-haired, a wee bit heavier, but no less enthused, to close out Day 2 and, with it, the festival itself. Looking like a good-natured rock 'n' roll granddad and backed by a 13-man band that included faithful sidekick and saxophonist Alto Reed, a handful of original Silver Bullet Band veterans, Grand Funk Railroad drummer Don Brewer, and a full four-piece horn section, he ripped through such classic rockers as "Fire Down Below," "Roll Me Away," "Old Time Rock 'n' Roll," and my personal favorite, "Hollywood Nights." Bob's voice may not be as powerful as it once was, but the songs are no less telling, and with the perspective of time, songs about the weariness of a road routine take on an autobiographical context. Likewise, the more poignant offerings -- "We've Got Tonight" (perhaps the best fuck song ever conceived) and "Turn the Page" remain as resilient as ever. Seger's superb show resonated with everyone there, proving indeed, to quote one of his song titles, rock 'n' roll never, ever forgets.
Summing up: For the first time out, Orlando Calling ran remarkably smoothly. Likewise, the quality and diversity of the performers was as impressive as any fest that's been up and running for a while. Still, next time, it would behoove them to stagger the performances more so that audiences can make the rounds and catch more music. And while they're at it, they might consider extending the sets beyond a stingy 40 minutes.
Personal bias: Bob Seger's set provided me with more than a hint of nostalgia for any number of reasons. I worked with him extensively during my years with Capitol Records, and no fewer than three gold and platinum records adorn a wall of my office (for Against the Wind, Nine Tonight, and Stranger in Town), so seeing him again some 25-plus years later was an emotional reunion indeed.
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Random detail: I wore denim and tie dye while many in the crowd seemed to favor tiny hats and T's.
By the way: This was a great start to what will hopefully be an annual tradition, one well worth the three-plus hours of travel and a relatively reasonable cost of admission.