Easing Into the Summer of Jason Isbell, One ‘GOD DAMN!’ at a Time


Last night, Jason Isbell was nearly twenty songs into his performance at the Capitol Theatre when members of the audience had to drag themselves away from the venue. It wasn’t because Isbell was disappointing; his performance hadn’t grown cumbersome or hit a lull in the least, and the set, which favored the bellows from 2013’s transformative Southeastern with breaks for new material and old nostalgia, was hardly predictable as Isbell flew off the cuff without a predetermined setlist. The second-to-last train leaving Port Chester for Grand Central Station was pulling up just as he was rounding the bend of a powerful, stark, and present two hours onstage, and fans had two options. They could stick around to hear more — maybe a closer glimpse at Something More Than Free, his new record, as it won’t be out until July 17 — and accept the fact that they were a very expensive cab ride away from home. They could wait around for the 12:18 a.m. train, maybe smoke a cigarette or few on the platform in the meantime — or they could sit on the Metro-North, marinating in the emotional aftermath of his balladry.

To be faced with a simple conundrum involving travel seemed appropriate and poetic, as Isbell seems to pose his most important questions and undertake his greatest soul-searching endeavors when he’s in transit, reflecting on the tough stuff while moving from one place to another. See “Traveling Alone,” “Super 8,” and “Flying Over Water” on Southeastern, “Speed Trap Town” from Something More Than Free, and “Alabama Pines,” off 2011’s Here We Rest. (For further proof, simply look to his left arm, which has lyrics from Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather” inked into its flesh: “Just carry yourself back to me unspoiled/From across that lonesome ocean.”) It’s almost as though the decision to play venues outside of New York City limits — the Capitol in Port Chester and the Space at Waterbury in Long Island the night before — was strategic, in that it gave Isbell fans an excuse to think as the train or cab quietly cut through the stillness of the suburban night. The intricacies and intimacies of Isbell’s songs meander through painful pasts, nerve-racking plane rides, and homeward-bound journeys. Mulling over those as the city drew nigh made for the perfect ending to a flawless performance from a man who turns flawed odysseys into Southern epics in four lines or less.

Isbell has the rare ability to shift between sweet lullabies and sinister murder ballads with little more than a lip twinge. He doesn’t even need to switch guitars, as the tenderness he can coax out of a roaring Les Paul is just as concentrated and pure as the sorrow or rage he can channel snapping the strings of an acoustic guitar. He did just that with “Elephant,” playing through to completion while calmly revisiting conversations with a dying friend and “ignoring the elephant” of their illness as the flaccid, useless twine dangled from the neck.

His intensity never wavered, but some of Isbell’s strongest moments are fueled by the megawatt might of the 400 Unit behind him, his band of insane players that happens to include the Slash of accordionists. (That’s the kind of gusto Derry deBorja played that wheezing organ with, anyway.) “Flying Over Water,” “Codeine,” and “Alabama Pines” buoyed Isbell through warm sing-along moments; the unfurling waltz of “Decoration Day” and drive of “Never Gonna Change” had Isbell favoring his solos over his vocal lines and nodding reverently to his Drive-By Truckers days. The transition between Isbell’s tried-and-true road staples and the songs he’s still finessing was fluid, with the crowd clamoring for Southeastern tracks as much as it did for the throwbacks.

But “Cover Me Up” — the halved, bleeding heart of Southeastern — was the undeniable set highlight, the peak of Isbell’s might as both a writer and a performer. “Cover Me Up” is a raw, down-on-his-knees declaration of love and commitment, one that’s definitively transcendent when singer-songwriter and violinist Amanda Shires, his wife, joins him onstage, and their performance at the 2014 Americana Music Honors & Awards reflects that. Shires wasn’t at the Capitol last night, but Isbell soared over those notes, letting his voice grow hoarse when the song called for it and hypnotizing the crowd with each strum. After a particularly passionate rendition, a guy by the bar screamed “GOD DAMN!” at the top of his lungs, and the titters of laughter that rippled around him weren’t of a teasing sort — if anything, they were in nervous agreement and too timid to voice their approval in the same way for fear of breaking the spell of Isbell.

From here, Isbell and the 400 Unit will continue to tour this mix of Southeastern, new hits, and new tracks. The “24 Frames” and the title track from Something More Than Free did get the proper live treatment at the Capitol, and with the release of the album drawing nigh and upcoming performances at Boston Calling, Celebrate Brooklyn!, and the Newport Folk Festival all giving him the grandiose outdoor mainstage treatment, it seems as though the new stuff will ease into precedence, “Cover Me Up” the obvious exception to the rule.

Southeastern will hardly take a backseat to Something More Than Free and future releases of Isbell’s, in that it’ll be difficult to favor another over such a pivotal piece of his work on both personal and artistic levels: Isbell recorded the album shortly after a stay in rehab, and the rawness and vulnerability of that time are as felt as the notes that articulate his feelings. Still, the trip with Something More Than Free is just starting — it’s a record Isbell’s referred to as “celebratory” and sonically ambitious in comparison with the darkness encountered on Southeastern — and if there’s anything we’ve learned from Isbell, the time spent in transit can matter as much as the reason for the journey itself.

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