Roots music collided with what seemed like futuristic science-fiction on May 24th, as Jason Isbell and Old Crow Medicine Show took part in a three-day live-streaming concert series called The Soundtrack of America: Live from Tennessee to Downtown Chicago.
Conceived by the Tennessee Department for Tourism Development as a way to spur even more travel from the Windy City to the Volunteer State, three shows were to be instantaneously beamed from Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville to a street corner in Chicago on three consecutive days — the first time interactive concerts have ever been held in two locations at the same time. Citizen Cope was selected as the Memphis performer for Monday's show, with Isbell and Old Crow representing Nashville and Ashley Monroe doing the honors Wednesday from her hometown of Knoxville.
The Nashville show — held in the CMA Theater inside the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum — was a marvel of technology on top of being an unusual show. Only a few dozen people were invited to be present on the Tennessee end of the feed, and the performers were more focused on video screens displaying a pretty-close-to-real-time view of the crowd assembled on the street in Chicago. The artists weren't even facing the seats in the CMA Theater — they were turned around backwards so the empty hall would be their backdrop. Cameras were situated all around — in front and behind — so fans in Chicago could walk around the back of the projection and actually see the reverse view, as if the performers were stuck inside. Plus, the artists and crowd could talk back and forth (albeit with a short delay) to take song requests, banter between songs and give away prizes.
The juxtaposition of cutting-edge technology with down-home roots music and ancient instruments wasn't lost on the member of Old Crow Medicine Show, who remarked that the whole concept would have seemed far-fetched even in a movie a few decades ago.
"The fact that we're doing it with a repertoire and instrumentation that resembles the technology of 100 to 200 years ago [is incredible]," band leader Ketch Secor told Rolling Stone Country before the show. "I mean really, the banjo is seen in hieroglyphic form at the pyramids in Giza, so imagine if they could fathom this kind of technology."
Likewise, Isbell was fascinated by the 360-degree views the setup offered.
"I think it's amazing that [fans] can walk around the back of the billboard in Chicago and see the back side of us," he said. "Isn't that amazing? It's like the thing Superman put Zod in, the prism that he throws out into space."
Old Crow took the stage first, delivering a spirited seven-song set of unplugged and high-energy hillbilly music around a single microphone, taking a request for Tom Petty's "American Girl" straight from Chi-town, signing a poster for a fan on the other side of the camera and leading what may well be the first-ever simultaneous singalong between two different cities on their big hit, "Wagon Wheel."
For all the foot-stomping and hollering of Old Crow's set, though, Isbell's was equally thrilling — just in the opposite emotional direction. Over his six tunes he coaxed goosebumps, from the title track of his country-chart-topping album Something More Than Free, to the passionate wail of "Cover Me Up" — written for his wife Amanda Shires, who was playing fiddle next to him.
The pair exchanged glances throughout the show, but when Isbell got to the line in "Cover Me Up" that goes "Home was a dream / One that I'd never seen / 'Til you came along," he stepped back and looked her dead in the eye as if to reaffirm his truth, sending shockwaves through the camera and straight to the Chicago streets. Isbell finished by offering a free Nashville trip to the most enthusiastic dancer in Chicago, and closed the show with the cinematic "Alabama Pines" before saying his goodbyes.
Speaking just before the show, he said live-streaming concerts like this are bound to become a bigger part of what an artist does, and maybe that's a good thing. There's at least one big benefit from his point of view.
"People are doing a lot of streaming shows, and I can see positives and negatives to it," he explained. "It'd be great to be able to play somewhere without physically having to travel there, because that is the great constraint for all of us who play music professionally… I'm sure there will be more of this, especially as the technology gets faster."