By Jeb Gavin
Tuesday night Jason Isbell played a nearly two hour set at the 9:30 Club. I missed out on watching the State of the Union live to hear the show. Regardless of your politics, if you were at the sold out concert, you made the right decision. I’ve seen him play drunk, I’ve seen him play with bigger bands, in smaller rooms, but it’s the first time I’ve seen Jason Isbell play a show in control, and enjoying the music he makes rather than using it as refuge in public.
Last I saw Isbell play he was still working through what I can only describe as therapeutic episodes of guitar strangulation. It was probably a set two or three years ago at the Rock and Roll Hotel. Every song required at least one solo -which he himself had to play- digging it out of his own flesh like he was using guitar strings to extract DT bugs. Typically “Never Gonna Change” (a cover only in the sense that he wrote and sang it in another band originally,) used to contain an elaborate riff on Jimi Hendrix’s “Stone Free,” now it’s all killer. (I don’t mean to be facetious here, implying Hendrix constitutes filler, but given Jason’s prowess at songwriting AND his prodigious fretwork, there’s just no need for the comparison.)
Isbell still guards his work with the Drive-By Truckers almost jealously, playing lead on each of the four covers, but it’s indicative of his maturity and progression as an artist he passes off the heavy lifting to band mates on his own work. Included among them is his now wife, fiddle player Amanda Shires, whose songwriting ability equals that of her husband (if you’re not stymied by the pay wall, read Dwight Garner’s New York Times piece on Isbell and the making of Southeastern. It contains perhaps the best simile of hyper-literate, married country songwriters ever constructed.)
The set featured 11 of the 12 tracks on Southeastern, the latest and strongest of Isbell’s own works. “Codeine,” from Here We Rest was prefaced with a story about trying to buy cold pills in North Carolina, and the turtle-stacking tendency of southerners to couch their arguments with a sort of geography specific, there-but-for-the-grace statements. After noting the foolishness of getting sideways glances from a pharmacist while trying to buy medication for two sick people, Isbell was told something to the effect of, “Well, be thankful you’re not in Tennessee.” He noted at this point people from his home state of Alabama do this all the time with Mississippi, and pretend to be ignorant of the fact that Mississippi says the same things about Alabama. Isbell just smiled and let it go.
My only disappointment on the evening was a lack of Pete Seeger covers, perhaps “Rye Whiskey” or “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” His death Tuesday morning has had me sideways thinking of listening to tapes with my dad. But that’s me projecting, it wasn’t as though there was a nationwide edict requiring everyone to play the man’s music that night. Instead Isbell dueted with Shires on a cover of “Mutineer,” a Warren Zevon song to open the encore. It was a beautiful, not quite elegiac moment, but it felt like seeing for the first time a manic friend made content rather than happy.
Decoration Day (Drive-By Truckers cover)
Tour of Duty
Go It Alone
Flying Over Water
Cover Me Up
Songs That She Sang in the Shower
Never Gonna Change (Drive-By Truckers cover)
Danko/Manuel (Drive-By Truckers cover)
Mutineer (Warren Zevon cover)
Outfit (Drive-By Truckers cover)