I have a friend who calls Jason Isbell, a musician who straddles the country and rock divide, her god. Her passion piqued my curiosity, so I checked him out. At first, I wasn’t impressed. Nothing during my cursory listen grabbed my attention; I promptly forgot about him. Years later, another friend slipped me a burned copy of the Drive-By Truckers’ album, Decoration Day. “I think you’ll like this,” he said and as I drove around with the album playing, I found myself returning to one particular song again and again: the Isbell penned and sung “Outfit.” Now he had my attention. I turned back to his solo, post-Truckers, work, and now I understood what my friends heard.
Music that transports me–anywhere, to another time, another place, another body–is the music I keep around. For me, it’s not entirely about being able to relate, but about being introduced to something I have never and will never get to personally experience. Through Isbell’s music, though, I get a glimpse. I get to slip into the life in the song on for three or four minutes.
With a style that is both unfussy and poignant, Isbell crafts songs that, much like Breece D’J Pancakes’s short stories, pull the listener into a more rural America, one we may vaguely know or remember, but, in a world of Instagram filters and keeping up with the Kardashians and mass migrations to the big cities, turn our backs on. We don’t want to work at our father’s father’s paint-shop. We do call what we’re wearing outfits, and they’re perfectly accessorized. We want to pretend things like war and drug addiction and cancer don’t exist. Isbell grabs us by the shoulder, as if to say, “This is life and you give it the dignity, deference and attention it deserves. You may not have to live this, and you’re lucky if you don’t, but you don’t get to pretend this shit doesn’t exist.” It’s hard not to respect that.
Which is to say, I, too, am now a fervent follower and I, along with hundreds of others, found myself at Ruth Eckerd Hall this past Wednesday night.
Josh Ritter opened the show. Unfamiliar with Ritter’s work, but having heard his name before, I kept getting him confused with other Joshes with acoustic guitars (Rouse, Radin), and after his set, I still wouldn’t be able to keep them clear. That isn’t to say he wasn’t good–the crowd around me were singing along and applauding mightily. He had a clear, warm voice, congenial between-song banter and a sound that reminded me at times of Lyle Lovett, but nothing really grabbed me. If I want to listen to Lyle, I’ll just put on Pontiac. The only time I sat up straighter in my seat was when Ritter introduced his lead guitar player, Mark Erelli. The singer-songwriter whose music does impress me–that Mark Erelli? During intermission, I Googled it and confirmed that yes, it was he. Well, damn. Why wasn’t he touring his new album? (He is, but not in the area.)
Jason came out and played the hits–they’re all hits–for two hours. He stacked the set with tracks from his last two albums, Southeastern and Something More Than Free, but also played the title track and “Outfit” from Decoration Day, the album that introduced Isbell to the world long before it re-introduced him to me.
The sound at Ruth Eckerd has always been impeccable and Wednesday night was no different. The music was loud and clear, but not overwhelming, and aside from the bass, which at times could be felt as much as heard, Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, sounded just as good as on the albums. In the live setting, however, Isbell and Co. allowed the songs a little more space to breathe, with him and his second guitarist, Sadler Vaden, taking extended guitar solos, either in turn, or dueling together.
When not singing or soloing, Isbell strode confidently back and forth across the stage or hopped up onto the drum and keyboard risers. Sober now after years struggling with addiction–coke and alcohol–the Alabama-born singer appeared trim, healthy, and, most importantly, in total control.
All the while, women danced in their seats, men twirled shirts or whatever terrible-towel equivalents they had over their heads. We all cried–or at the very least felt that tickle and pull in our chests–during “Cover Me Up,” written for his wife, Amanda Shires, and arguably one of Jason’s best and most touching songs. (“So cover me up and know you’re enough to use me for good,” as the end of the refrain goes, may not ignite much emotion on the page, but listen to him sing it, and I guarantee you’ll get goosebumps.)
Hanging on the backdrop behind the band were three faux stained-glass windows, lit from inside and giving the large hall an intimate, chapel-like feeling. When Isbell took his extended solo in “Children of Children,” the last song of the night, he posed front and center at the lip of the stage, bathed in the crosshatching of a dozen spotlights. “He looks like Jesus on the cross,” I whispered in awe to my fiance, even though he didn’t, not really, not at all. But it was the only way I could word the reverence of that moment, of that image of him with guitar in hand and klieg-light aureole surrounding him. I can’t imagine Isbell converted many that night, but only because I can’t imagine anyone there wasn’t already a believer.
“We hope to see you again soon,” he said, before the band gathered together for their standing ovation. I’m confident enough to speak for the entire audience when I say the feeling, Jason, is mutual.