If great live music is religion, then more than 3,500 people gathered for some church at the inaugural Peacemaker Music & Arts Festival with rising music superstar Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit closing out the service with a rousing and rocking two-hour sermon.
The music began Friday in Harry E. Kelley in downtown Fort Smith with Tyrannosaurus Chicken, followed by The Paul Benjamin Band, The Cate Brothers Band, and Memphis-based Lucero.
Isbell, who on July 17 released his new album “Something More Than Free,” took the stage around 10 p.m. and hit the last note just short of midnight. Isbell’s new album recently edged out the new work of Alan Jackson to capture the top spot on Billboard’s country albums chart – although Isbell’s music is anything but the country music typically produced and pushed by Nashville.
The new album follows the critical success of “Southeastern,” an album Isbell released in 2013 following a stint in rehab. The album won the 2014 Americana Honors and Awards album of the year and the song “Cover Me Up” won the Americana song of the year award. Isbell’s sound also is labeled by some as “roots rock.”
Prior to his solo career, Isbell was a guitarist for about six years with Drive-By Truckers, a popular band known for their music mix of alt-country and southern rock.
Isbell and the 400 Unit delivered to the Fort Smith crowd on Friday a broad selection of Isbell’s work. One of the first songs was “Dress Blues,” from his 2007 solo album “Sirens of the Ditch.” From the songs he wrote during his days with Drive-By Truckers, Isbell performed “Decoration Day,” “Never Gonna Change,” and “Outfit.”
The Friday night audience was familiar with Isbell’s work, singing loudly along with songs like “Codeine,” “Cover Me Up,” and “Super 8.”
The band also played the complex and somewhat symphonic “Children of Children” from the new album. The song, almost six minutes in length, may not get much air time with corporate radio but will likely be a classic piece of American music.
“You and I were almost nothing
Pray to God that God was bluffing
17 ain’t old enough to reason with the pain
How could we expect to stay in love
When neither knew the meaning of the difference between sacred and profane”
The band closed out a three-song encore with an amped up version of the classic Rolling Stones song “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” The song, written by Mick Jaggar and Keith Richards, was recorded by the Rolling Stones at Muscle Shoals, Ala., near Green Hill, Ala., where Isbell grew up.
Members of The 400 Unit are Derry DeBorja (keyboards), Chad Gamble, (drums), Jimbo Hart (bass guitar), and Sadler Vaden (guitar).
The music didn’t end with Isbell. The Saturday lineup begins with Fort Smith’s own Luke Pruitt at 3 p.m., followed by Isayah’s Allstars, Brown Sabbath, Red Wanting Blue, Anders Osborne, and Corey Smith. The night closes out with music legend Chris Robinson – former lead singer for the Black Crowes – and his Chris Robinson Brotherhood.
Organizers of the Peacemaker Festival are working to make it an annual event that not only delivers a weekend of arts and live music but also benefits area charities.
“Our mission is to bring a diverse cultural, musical, and art experience to Downtown Fort Smith. We are dedicated to improving the quality of life and enhancing cultural experiences for residents, businesses, and visitors alike,” the organization notes on its website.
(The 3,500 attendance number is a conservative estimate by The City Wire. If it is wrong, it is wrong on the low end.)