Jason Isbell

An Evening with Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: Review with Photo Slideshow

Two-time Grammy Award winner Jason Isbell and his backing band the 400 Unit returned to the Berglund Performing Arts Theatre last night. On a stage immaculately lit, with a beautifully balanced sound system, the atmosphere was set for an intimate evening with the singer-songwriter. The music was a blend of acoustic Americana, southern rockabilly jams, and some harder-edge classic rock ‘ roll, all of which showcased Isbell’s gripping vocal qualities.

The 100-minute set was comprised mostly of songs from Isbell’s two most recent solo albums, “Southeastern” (2013) and “Something More Than Free” (2015), opening the show with “Stockholm” and later performing such hits as “Cover Me Up,” “Different Days,” “24 Frames,” “Speed Trap Town,” and “Super 8.”

Much of Isbell’s success as a singer-songwriter comes from his ability to create complex compositions filled with harrowing lyrics and emotion. Isbell writes about himself, honestly, openly, and brutally, without holding back.  His brilliant, yet accessible, songs cover universal topics of loss, loneliness, and love, and his personal struggles with addiction and the substance abuse that held a powerful grip on him in his early career. That early career included a six-year stint as lead guitarist and a principle songwriter for the Drive-By Truckers.

The evening performance previewed several songs off the band’s upcoming album “The Nashville Sound,” as well as a couple of songs written and performed during those years with the Drive-By Truckers. The new album, scheduled for release June 16th, delivers a heavier dose of rock than the award-winning “Something More than Free.”

Throughout the night, Isbell provided lots of love to his backing band, the 400 Unit, a name derived from the colloquial term for the psychiatric ward of a hospital located in Florence, Alabama, located in the Muscle Shoals region where Isbell and many of the band members claim roots. The band features former Drivin’ and Cryin’ member Sadler Vaden on guitar, Derry deBorja, formerly of Son Volt on keys, Jimbo Hart on bass and Chad Gamble on drums.

In true singer-songwriter fashion, Isbell was engaging and jovial with the audience, even pointing out the differences between singer-songwriters and other musical performers, impersonating what it might have been like had Michael Jackson introduced himself between songs. “Hi, I’m Michael Jackson and this song is called Beat It”. Isbell joked that sometimes he likes to rewrite history that way, before launching into “The Life You Chose” followed by “Traveling Alone,” two songs that include deliberate lyrical repetition to deepen the audience’s understanding of the music.

The three-song encore opened with “If We Were Vampires,” a slower ballad from the new album, that speaks to the mortality of life and marriage, and that eventually one of the lovers is left behind. Two rock songs completed the evening, “Flying Over Water,” and “Never Gonna Change,” which featured plenty of Isbell’s and Vaden’s intricate guitar skills.

From here, Isbell and the 400 Unit play a handful of shows in early May before embarking on an intense six-month American and European tour to promote their new album. That tour kicks off June 17th in Asheville, NC, followed by a show in Raleigh.

Before leaving the stage last night Isbell promised an eventual return, stating, “See y’all real soon!”

Jefferson Center Music Lab

Blue Ridge KIDS Rock: The Music Lab @ The Jefferson Center

If you’re reading this, chances are, you consider music to be a vital part of life.  You appreciate this form of art and more than likely, others as well.  Valuing the arts, and understanding their importance as a form of not just enjoyment, but communication as well, is the point of this series I will present to Blue Ridge Rocks readers over the next few months.  Blue Ridge KIDS Rock will provide our readership with information about the current organizations and businesses that offer the children in our community what all of us at Blue Ridge Rocks so value: exposure to the wonder that is music.

The Jefferson Center is home to my first subject: the Music Lab.  The Music Lab provides an educational experience for kids in grades 6th-12th.  At the incredibly affordable price of $100 per semester, students can sign up with no prior musical experience, and receive instruction in music technology, music recording and production, songwriting, and various other parts of the music business.  If students are so inclined, they may attend Music Lab workshops, classes, or open lab up to four times a week.  My limited math skills tell me that’s around $1.67 per day they attend!  #Value!  Students also have the opportunity to utilize incredible musicians who provide individual lessons in drums, cello, voice, guitar, piano and violin, at a reasonable hourly rate.

Story Behind the Song: Poe Mack

While this may come as a surprise to some, the genre of rap music is highly coveted by most songwriters. I happen to REALLY enjoy just listening to hip-hop, but as a songwriter (of primarily folk music), I can’t help but be in awe of the ability to create so many internal, clever rhymes in a 3-4 minute span.

Poe Mack, a hip-hop artist from Roanoke, has been making music for over 20 years. He tours up and down the east coast, from Maine to the country music capital, Nashville, all the way down to Florida. Mack, who is signed to Roanoke-based Rawsole Records, is a man of many talents. Not only is he a lyricist, but he produces, records and engineers his own tunes. He produces for others as well in his home-studio and has been working at Flat Five Press and Recording Company since 2005. Mack is also active in the community, performing in benefits for ovarian cancer, Hurricane Katrina disaster, and the victims of the Virginia Tech Massacre.

Samantha Fish

Slideshow: The Samantha Fish Band at The Harvester

The sultry Samantha Fish made her third appearance at The Harvester Performance Center on Wednesday night. This was the Kansas City blues guitarist’s first time playing the main stage and she owned every foot of it, putting on a high-energy rock / blues show for the crowd. Fish has an incredibly charismatic stage presence and absolutely slays those blues guitar solos, all while rocking out in stiletto heels.


The stage wasn’t the only thing that was different from her past performances. Since her last visit to Rocky Mount, her backing band has grown from a three-piece to a larger six-piece ensemble. With the accompanying horn section, tunes like “Crow Jane” come alive with the deep tones of saxophone and the high brass of trumpet. Fish performed several songs from her recently released “Chills and Fever”, an album she recorded with members of the garage rock collective Detroit Cobras. That collaboration shouldn’t surprise Samantha’s fans as she has always maintained a strong bridge between blues and hard rock, as demonstrated in this 2014 performance of “War Pigs“.

While Wednesday night’s performance didn’t get to the “Black Sabbath-level” heavy, Fish certainly brought high energy and power to her past hits and new blues tunes. Enthusiastic crowd reactions made it clear why Fish has returned to the Harvester, and will surely make this venue a regular stop as her star continues to rise.

Future tour dates, music, videos, and all manner of merch can be found at her website. We look forward to seeing her back at the Harvester or another regional venue soon!

Down by Downtown: A Spotlight on the Local Acts

Some big acts will descend upon Roanoke as the eighth annual Down by Downtown (DxDT) Festival rocks the Star City for next three days. Chris Stapleton has a sold-out show tonight at the Berglund Center, and Saturday night’s headliner, Lotus, is sure to draw an energetic crowd. For an excellent rundown of those bigger acts, I’d recommend reading Tad Dickens’ Roanoke Times article. Meanwhile, here’s a look at a few of the local bands that are part of this weekend’s festivities. After all, DxDT was first conceived to showcase downtown Roanoke’s live music scene.

Empty Bottles kicks of the local music tonight at The Wall Street Tavern. The band brings new energy to interpretations of an array of genres that range from Billy Joel and Prince to The Beatles and the Grateful Dead. This foursome features the versatile Steele Whisnant  on bass, and the incomparable Ben Hite on keyboards. Hite is a demon on the keys, and could hold the stage by himself. In a band, he can move from back up to lead, and everything in between. Empty Bottles will clink the glass, and start the show at 9pm.

Record Store Day All-Star Jam Slideshow

“The only truth is music” –Jack Kerouac

There was a whole lot of truth being shared Saturday, as musicians, fans, and organizers, all came together to make music at The Spot on Kirk in support of Community High School and the upcoming National Record Store Day.  It was inspiring and humbling to be a part of an event in which so many people donated their time and craft.
The bands were at the very heart of making this event such a joyful experience! The Community High School Performance Band, Groova Scape, GOTE, Blue Mule, and M.C.Broom & the Jam  all gave incredible performances which kept the whole place grooving throughout the day.

Photographer Meagan Reynolds was there to capture some of the musical truth and joy being shared so freely. These photos are just a sample of her great work. You can find more photos from the event on her Facebook page.

Record Store Day Turns 10

Born in 2007 by a group of independent record store owners and employees as a means of celebrating the culture unique to the independently owned record store, the first Record Store Day happened on April 19, 2008. On the verge of its tenth anniversary, there are now Record Store Day participating stores on every continent … except Antarctica; and, for the first time, RSD is coming to the Vintage Vault Record Store located inside the 16 West Marketplace, Saturday, April 22nd.


Record Store Day is a day for those who love the world of the independent record store – staff, customers, artists – to celebrate the unique culture of record stores and the role they play in their communities. There are special vinyl and CD releases as well as various promotional products available exclusively for the day. In the beginning the list of exclusive RSD only titles was small, now the list includes artists from large and small labels, artists from every genre and price point. Click here for a downloadable pdf of this year’s list.

Fabulous Dramatics: Finding new sounds among the sounds

Almost exactly one a year ago we featured a new (to the area) singer songwriter, Kris Piemonte, and his quest to find innovative “sounds between the sounds” in his music. His goals were simple and brave: create meaningful sounds and lyrics that revealed universal truths, then bring them to the stage such that others felt it.

He was also searching for bandmates who could share in that vision.

One year later, and Piemonte is well along his path to realizing those goals. With the addition of guitarist/ keyboardist Marc Verica, a recent transplant from Charlottesville, the Fabulous Dramatics are set to launch a new album this Saturday at Soaring Ridge Craft Brewers.

Catherine Backus: Finalist in Prestigious Songwriting Competition

Sometimes you hear a song and it just lights something up in you. I remember the first time I heard Ray Lamontagne’s song “Jolene”. I listened to it over and over again, because something about it made me feel all the feels. I didn’t necessarily relate to every word he sang, but the emotion was so strong, that I didn’t need to share the experience, to experience the experience with him. As a songwriter, you go one step beyond just feeling a song. You study chord progressions, the rhyme scheme, the brilliant prosody it may contain, and at the end of the day, you just think, “damn, I wish I wrote that song.”

I love finding a song that does that to me, and I get even more excited when that song is written by someone in our own backyard. Catherine Backus, a 25 year-old from Bedford, VA, has just been announced as a finalist in the national Chris Austin Songwriting Competition, for her song “Tomatoes” The Chris Austin Songwriting Competition has been a staple at Merlefest, a roots festival in Wilkesboro, NC, since the 90s, and is known for its quality of entrants. Past winners include Gillian Welch, Tift Merritt, Sam Quinn, and Adrienne Young, just to name a few. Backus, who’s day job is an activity director at an adult day care center, is a name who I believe will be just as well-known as those aforementioned.

Twin Creeks Brewing Co

Twin Creeks Brewing: A Frothy Mix of Beer, Music, and Community

If you think about it, craft beer and music have a lot in common. At their core, both are works of art. Similar to a musician, a craft beer brewer starts with a handful of simple ingredients, blends in plenty of skill and passion, all to ultimately form a unique concoction that brings others joy. It’s one of the reasons the two make the perfect pairing.

Andy Bishop, one of three owners of Twin Creeks Brewing, is passionate about that pairing, and its at the core of Roanoke County’s first brewery. Twin Creeks Brewing opened its doors in November 2016, and has made steady progress to become a destination for both delicious craft beer, and excellent original music in downtown Vinton. Bishop, a musician himself, recognizes the importance of making the brewery a destination where people can feel comfortable to visit.

“A brewery is not a bar, and a bar is not a brewery. A brewery is a social gathering place. A brewery is a place for family and friends to come together and share an experience, and music is an integral part of it.” Bishop shared in a recent interview.