Southern rock sensation Jason Isbell brings it to Lincoln Center and Rock NYC’s Iman Lababedi brings us this review
By Iman Lababedi
With his slicked back hair, smart brown shoes, and pasty white skin tone, there is something about Jason Isbell, the singer songwriterfrom near Muscle Shoals, that suggests the British gentry or if not that, the landed gentry; you keep expecting him to hike himself up and join the Confederacy while kissing Miss Scarlett goodbye.
And while the truth is Isbell is more a form of modern Southern rock royalty, his sublime set at the pinnacle of jazz as high culture ”there weren’t any cheap seats were there?” Allen Room, fit him remarkably well. A small, beautiful room overlooking Columbus Circle and Central Park West, with a wide window directly behind the stage. The 400 Unit were sent an email telling them not to dress in black so they didn’t merge with the night and the lights behind them.
The set, part of the “American Songbook” series, travelled the line between Southern gentility and Southern redneck and fell onto the former. Filmed for PBS’ “Live At Lincoln Center” program, Isbell took his excellent the 400 Unit band on a 90 minutes plus Rolling Stones encore most popular song set perfected over the past six months of touring in support of Ken Shane of Popdose album of the year Southeastern. Isbell explained how he began writing songs at the age of 12, using his friends and families experiences, till he joined Drive-By-Truckers in 2001, where his songs fit firmly next to Patterson Hood’s Southern Goth rockers. Isbell went solo in 2007 where two albums failed to ignite though listening to them now it is hard to know why they didn’t. 2012 he recorded Southeastern and married Amanda Shires, a songwriter herself, who helped him kick his alcohol addiction.
Isbell is a great, classic songwriter. Imagine Danko, Manuel, Robertson -the Band, if they themselves recorded for Drive By Truckers and that will get you a feel for what Isbell does. Passionate story songs that never miss an aphorism if you give them a chance. The sheer quality of his material is surprising, skimming 12 years of songs into a well structured hour and a half building to “Elephant” and then building again to “Outfit” -his two signature songs.
People find “Elephant” about a woman dying of cancer very moving, but I find it missing in some ways. It is a bit too writerly for my tastes, especially since a close friend of mine died from cancer earlier this year and she, unlike his asinine claim, certainly died with dignity intact; I’m not sold that Isbell quite understands it. No such claim effects his best song, “Outfit”, even though, again, it is a story and not an autobiography to my mind.
This is what Isbell had to say about his father, the narrator of “Outfit” during an interview with spinitloud.com: “I was born on the Alabama/Tennessee line in Greenhill, Alabama. My parents still live there, my mom lives in Greenhill, and my dad lives in Killen. They’re the only people in my family who aren’t musicians. Some of my family were semi-professional in their younger days. But my parents were very instrumental in my foundation as an artist, mainly because they had so many records at the house. My dad would come home each day from work and put on a record to help clear his head. He’s really young and a fan of 70’s arena rock, like Queen and Free.” So his story of a blue collar house painter’s advice to his wayward son doesn’t have the heft of biography but sure has the truth of a life lived among a certain structure of person. On stage, Jason allows the band one of its few extended codas and I was wishing the song was longer.
This songwriter part of whatever Isbell does is clearer still on his “Temporary Like Achilles” rewrite “Cover Me Up”. In this sense at least, Isbell connects back to the 1960s, and not to Southern rock, or even his beloved Muscle Shoals sound but without anything approaching psychedelic self-indulgence. Jahn Xavier of the Bowerytones whispered to me at one point “Thirteen songs in and not a wasted moment.” The band is enormously tight but everything is at service of the songs, only towards the end do they hit a groove and maintain it; even when a three piece horn section joins the 400 Units during “Stockholm” and stay for the rest of the night, they aren’t playing funk , they aren’t, as Jahn mentioned, playing the sharp blast but rather long melodic notes. Jahn compared the sound to the British Invasion horns and except for a cover of Candi Staton’s “Heart On A String”, that is precisely what it is.
Last years Southeastern was a major breakthrough for Isbell at least in terms of the world’s artistic interpretation of him, though as this career covering set proves, Isbell is an expert songwriter. Given to story songs of loss and addiction, “Different Days”, played midset, is the perfect example of his midtempo storied songs: economic in the extreme, it plays out as yet another bastard and another girl born to be left. On “Codeine” Jason sings “If there’s one thing I can’t take, it’s the sound that a woman makes about five seconds after her heart begins to break” and that mix of empathy and callousness personifies Isbell.
Standing next to his wife, the accomplished violinist Amanda Shires, he is a charmed singer songwriter as Southern rocker, he tells his stories of drugs and women and has the built in “it is only a story folks” right next to him. And as Jason’s backstory of alcohol abuse and redemption plays out elsewhere, the comparisons are with other fields of songwriters, the Rosanne Cash’s and Justin Townes Earle’s, but he balances his Southerness, his countryness, his roots if you will, much better than they do. Eastern culture hasn’t rubbed off on him and if his tempo is slower it has more to do with being in his mid-30s than being at odds with his roots; a problem that seriously inflicts Steve Earle for one.
The set is one of the most perfect things you will ever see. It starts strong and ends stronger. The word is sublime. All the playing, the entire band, is money. But Chad Gamble is remarkable; the tempo is always a touch slow, it always seems to be dragging itself maybe because the songs are on the downbeat with only “Travelling Alone” -a duet with Jason’s wife, offering a clear way out; Tom holds it down but with power and not with speed. it is like he is playing martial beats on country songs but he isn’t doing that at all.
The Southeastern tour is a must see.On stage, Isbell is easy going, funny, not particularly revealing but enough to make us know we are one on one with him. This is my second time catching it and except for one complaint, we didn’t get “Streetlights”, it is a set (and a tour) that will be remembered a long long time. The segue from “Goddamn Lonely Love” to “Outfit” is so moving it was this and not “Elephant” that can make a grown man cry. The last six songs tower over a towering set, from “Elephant” to a cover of “Can You Hear Me Knocking” where Isbell let’s loose the dogs of war (he used to cover “Like A Hurricane”) it never stops building and the penultimate “Super 8″ hits the recorded version for a loop. The audience has been enthused but quiet and tentative, as though the surrounding is intimidating them and not Jason, but here they begin to unwind at last.
For Jason and for us it is a moment in his career that has been captured on film and will be held up ten or fifty years from now as the moment he was seen differently by the public. A major set, very well played. A Southern gentleman at home in Eastern High Culture.
(Iman Lababedi is editor-at-large for Rock NYC. For more great live reviews and music coverage from the Big Apple and beyond, visit Rock NYC.)