Love live music but not the inherent drawbacks of a crowded room? The Grey Eagle’s drive-in concerts at the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds might be for you.
Want to actually see the performers while you’re there? That’s another matter.
With statewide restrictions preventing area indoor venues from hosting events in usual pre-pandemic fashion, scattered outdoor options have arisen, including relatively large-scale offerings by the Grey Eagle and Asheville Music Hall in Haywood and Transylvania counties. Tickets are sold by the carload, with a maximum occupancy of four people per vehicle, and include a parking spot and an adjoining space to sit or stand — in which they’re asked to remain except for restroom trips — and additional access to the show via FM radio.
Following concerts by the Sam Bush Band in September and Mandolin Orange and the Del McCoury Band in October, the Grey Eagle’s series attracted arguably its highest-profile act — Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires — for the evening of Nov. 5, which quickly sold out once it was announced in late September. While not billed as a “Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit” show, the absence of a backing band for the husband/wife duo was nevertheless somewhat of a disappointment, though one that quickly faded as their charming, bare-bones performance proceeded.
With Isbell on acoustic guitar and Shires wielding her violin, the couple dedicated the night to Shires’ former bandleader Billy Joe Shaver, who passed away on Oct. 28 at the age of 81. The show opened with Shires taking lead vocals on her old friend’s “Live Forever,” then, visibly emotional, she settled into a supporting role for the rest of the evening, lending tasteful harmonies and fiddle flourishes to choice selections from her partner’s illustrious songbook.
Between flawless takes of tracks from his May 2020 release, Reunions, (notably the raw sobriety tale “It Gets Easier” and the moving fatherhood narrative “Letting You Go”) and earlier creations (“Elephant”; “Alabama Pines”; “Last of My Kind”) that sound as if they also could have been cut this year, Isbell proved a master of banter. Elated to be collaborating with the Grey Eagle again, he complimented the venue’s artist dressing room bathroom graffiti — awarding it the vaunted title of second-best in the world after the 40 Watt Club in Athens, Ga. — and joked about his shaggy appearance, revealing that, in order to escape his Nashville home for the show, he made a deal with his 5-year-old daughter, Mercy, that he’d shave his facial stubble before he returned.
Along with Shavers’ death, Isbell noted other significant losses from 2020 within his professional circle, including Justin Townes Earle and John Prine, the latter of whose “Storm Windows” — which Isbell noted he’s been playing since he was a teen — received a hearty tribute late in the set. About the only thing he didn’t address was the current political climate or the presidential election, topics he hasn’t shied away from on Twitter yet felt purposefully omitted in conservative-leaning Haywood County.
But the absence of partisan commentary wasn’t all that was missing during the show. For many attendees, even those mere rows back, Isbell and Shires were obscured by pickup trucks and SUVs — a notable flaw of the single-level venue setup, despite a maximum vehicle height clearance of 8 feet meant to deter such problems. The lone moderately sized, barely elevated projection screen next to the stage offered minimal help, turning the chilly night (temperatures dipped into the mid-low 40s) into a glorified radio show (the sound was practically perfect throughout), and a pricy one at that as concertgoers able to find three people willing to ride in a car together during a pandemic paid $40-$75 apiece.
Considering the line-of-sight issues, it’s conceivable that organizers could park vehicles in unobtrusive areas and mark out spaces on the grounds for attendees to view the stage from various distances — similar to this summer/fall’s concert series at Camp Grier in Old Fort. However, the proximity to vehicles allows for easy access to chairs, blankets and refreshments, as well as horns to be honked to encourage an encore, to which Isbell and Shires obliged with the quick-burst goodness of “24 Frames” and “If We Were Vampires” before exiting for good.
Keller Williams (Friday, Nov. 13) and St. Paul & the Broken Bones (Thursday, Nov. 19) close out the series, which doubtlessly helps fill a void for Asheville-area music fans accustomed to seeing talented performers on any given night — an effort that’s greatly appreciated, especially considering the plentiful health and logistical issues taken into account by the organizers. But factoring in the basic visibility woes and questionable overall value, the experience leaves plenty of room for improvement.