Following the 2017 Sloss Music and Arts Festival, I kept hearing from friends that I had missed out on an amazing weekend. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice, so this year I made the short trek from Nashville to the Magic City–Birmingham, Alabama–to see what all the fuss was about. Based in and around the industrial setting of the Birmingham Sloss Furnaces, a National Historic Landmark that harkens back to the city’s steel-making roots, the festival has a unique landscape and allows for such eclectic attractions as an iron pouring demonstration, a fountain made from old water main piping, a steam locomotive on display, and its own branded water tower looming large over the grounds.
After taking a few minutes to walk around, visit the craft beer tent, and marvel at the unusually large amount of selfie stations, it was time to get the music started. Even though we just caught up with Nashville’s surf rock outfit *repeat repeat, it’s never a bad thing to repeat *repeat repeat. Anyone familiar with the band knows that the group, especially frontman Jared Corder, boasts a high voltage stage presence that can only come from pure rock caffeine pumping through his veins. Jolting the early afternoon crowd from their sun-induced haze, the band tore through a mix of older works and even shared a preview of an addictive riff and hook-filled song from their upcoming album. The crowd, that when asked by Corder identified itself as mostly being from Alabama, seemed to already know the words to each song, demonstrating the tremendous growth in fanbase the band has rightly enjoyed over the last year. Having seen the band several times over the last couple of years, I commented that *repeat repeat was putting on the best sounding show that I had heard from them when suddenly the music gods laughed. A fast storm was approaching, the band’s set was cut short, and the crowd was left having to cling to the few memories it was able to capture before the set was ended far too soon by something outside of the band’s control. Fortunately, it was such a strong set that it likely left the Birmingham crowd hungry for more the next time the band makes it through the area.
And then we waited…with a cycle of storm warnings, followed by clear skies, followed by more storm warnings, we waited. Eventually, the Festival decided to evacuate the grounds. Due mostly to confusion with the communications between the Festival itself, its contracted security, the vendors, crowd rumors, news reports, and localized issues connecting to social media alerts due to the crowd size, some people left completely, while others immediately returned to lines to be the first to get back in. Some smarter patrons crowded into the local microbrewery located next door–the only restaurant or bar close to the festival grounds. Unfortunately, by the time the “all clear” came down, the festival had to modify the schedule to make sure that the biggest names on the lineup still got to play. I felt bad for the bands that didn’t get the chance to perform, but selfishly happy to find that the Jason Isbell and Arcade Fire sets remained intact and unopposed.
Being part of the crowd that left the site to get dinner during the storm, we made it back in time to hear Vance Joy finishing his set with hit “Riptide,” but not in time to get set up to take any pictures of his set. Standing way in the back for a change, I was impressed by how many people Vance Joy had drawn, as the crowd poured out of the stage area and into neighboring vendors.
With the skies clearing, it was time for the first of the evening’s main attractions, Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit. While many people associate Isbell with Nashville, especially in light of his recent album title The Nashville Sound, Isbell and his band actually claim Muscle Shoals as home. As he introduced his crew, the Birmingham crowd roared for the band’s Alabama roots. Isbell is one of those genre-defying artists that merge rock, roots, country, and folk to get a unique sound with which almost anyone can identify. As he lyrically took up social issues prominent in today’s folk and Americana world, his band laid down fiery guitar solos and thunderous drum beats. More than anything, this concert reminded me of the special talent the band has as musicians and the chemistry they have as a group. A true music lover, Isbell even gave a shout out to 21 Savage that had just played a neighboring stage—even though Isbell joked that the rapper probably taught his daughter a few new words that night. While a dominating musical force just based on their own works, Isbell and The 400 Unit added a few songs from Isbell’s days with the Drive By Truckers, which drew squeals of happiness from several of the audience members around me. Isbell and The 400 Unit remain one of the most progressive bands of the Americana scene while embracing and building around classic sounds and the musical history of Isbell as an artist.
I had not had the chance to see Arcade Fire since they were on their Suburbs tour in 2011, and I was excited to see how the band has evolved since that time. Both then and now, the band presents with a wide array of instruments allowing for a rich musical sound and an abundance of complimenting vocal styles. I remember their 2011 set having an orchestral quality which focused on bringing a lushness to the music itself. Flash forward to 2018 at Sloss and the band has developed a more dynamic stage personality that let the various members shine. With frontman Win Butler singing, rocking on guitar, and hyping up the bouncing crowd, all the while perched on top of the stage monitors, the crowd was instantly immersed in the experience. More than just a concert, the band put on a show, featuring at one point a drummer hanging from one of the stage supports as well as a constant swapping of instruments that we couldn’t even identify (people dubbed one of them a “crankacordian”). The band’s presentation alone would have made this one of the best shows I have seen in the last few years. While some may question the band’s heavy use of electronic synth throughout the set, I thought it gave the songs a modern feel in this current musical realm that craves a dance-worthy sound at all times. With added screens hanging over the band flashing graphics and video, and a massive disco ball that added a dazzling rotating light effect over the crowd, it was also one of the most fun shows I have been to in the last few years. All the production and effects made the stripped down encore performance of their hit “Wake Up” feel even more poignant. Everyone danced, clapped, and sang along. Arcade Fire kept the audience moving until the very end, and no one wanted to leave.
While our first day of Sloss had been cut a bit short with the music due to the uncontrollable weather elements that are part of any music festival, it had clearly used the time that we did have there well. Between the surf rock of *repeat repeat, the authentic Americana sounds of Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit, and the marvel of the showmanship of Arcade Fire, I left feeling like I had one of the most complete concert days I can remember.
[This coverage was provided by George Maifiar, and these brilliant photos were snapped by Sammi Maifair. Stay tuned for coverage from Day 2!]