The first triple-play of episodes in UCSB Arts & Lectures’ impressive, satisfying “House Calls” streaming concert series amounted to a mini-festival celebrating American music expanding on folk/country roots. Specifically, the focus was on new music outta’ the American south. From the youngster camp, 28-year-old Billy Strings launched the series with his tasty newgrass-meets-jamband brew (read review here), followed by respected, early fortysomething Americana heroes, Jason Isbell and Nathanial Rateliff.
Commonalities bind Isbell and Rateliff, as bold, wise songwriters and personal, natural music conjurers who thrive in band settings (Isbell with his 400-Unit, Rateliff with the Night Sweats), but who also take easily flight in solo mode. Both have made memorable live and in-person Santa Barbara appearances—Isbell in a “Sings like Hell” show at the Marjorie Luke, Rateliff at the Santa Barbara Bowl—and both used their “House Calls” shows to showcase songs from substantial new albums–promotional tours for which were Covid-cancelled.
In the A&L series, the home-brewed, live-from-the-artists’-own-zone format worked beautifully, partly thanks to the innate downhome-y vibe embedded in their musical personae. Isbell appeared in his barn-studio with his gifted fiddler-singer wife Amanda Shires, against a triptych of stained-glass windows salvaged from a tour stage set. They won us over with an hour-ish set including his ode to struggling with booze, “Cover Me Up,” several jewel-like new ones, and closing with the sweet “Dreamsicle.”
In a post-set Q&A, moderated by the Independent’s Charles Donelan, Isbell, known for the melancholic bent of his songcraft, said that “sometimes, people don’t get the humor, because the songs are so heavy. Life is heavy, and I laugh at most everything.” We caught pinches of that humor, as when, after the opening song, “Overseas,” he mugged to the silent audience, “I hope that you’re virtually clapping… no, that’s too much ma’am. Tone it down.”
Rateliff seemed literally right at home, in his wood-lined music studio, with a coterie of acoustic guitars (nylon- and steel-stringed), and swaddled in vintage and custom amps. His excellent new album And It’s Still All Right came to self-reliant life here, from the cautious optimistic tint of the title track to the eerily prescient “Tonight #2,” with its seemingly pandemic-referential refrain “if the world goes strange, its dying flame/Would light the end of last morning.” In “I Don’t Know,” he hypnotically repeats the haunting line “this wound’s gonna’ cancel me out.”
But positivity is also abuzz in Rateliff’s songbook, as with the ripe and affirmative show-closer “Say it Louder.”
In a post-show Q&A with K-Lite’s Catherine Remak, Rateliff commented that his new record’s songs, in tribute to the late producer Richard Swift, explore “what is it to find hope and joy in times of hardship.” Locally, the “House Calls” series itself has proven a source of hope and joy, on the home fronts.
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