As their North American tour stopped in Seattle last night, Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires again proved themselves to be the Tim McGraw and Faith Hill of alt-country. (Granted, the duo is infinitely more talented than Nashville's Celine Dion and her spouse, whose inane "Truck Yeah" debased popular music in general.) With his wife chipping in on violin and vocals, Isbell headlined the packed gig at Neumos, a 500-capacity Capitol Hill club that Shires accurately remarked felt like her native Texas, as the Emerald City continues to bask in an heat wave of unprecedented length.
A lot of ink, digital or otherwise, has been spilled on Isbell in the wake of his remarkable recent release, Southeastern, and rightfully so. Only Lucinda Williams, Jamey Johnson, Patty Griffin and James McMurtry can hold a candle to the former Drive-By Trucker in terms of his ability to bring dark, dusty corners of America to life in song without leaning too heavily on the vain cane of introspection. When a fan yelled out, "Play something sad," Isbell said that marked his "favorite heckle ever." But, kidding aside, when people look forward to your shows as an opportunity to wring certain emotions dry in public, you've achieved something special as a songwriter.
Isbell is destined for a long career of selling out big rooms and small theaters; what he's peddling is far too heavy for mass consumption. But for Shires, the sky's the limit; it's only a question of how she wants to be marketed. Shires, who's of Irish and Native American descent and seems to have a dimple that extends from her right cheek through the middle of her chest, is an absolute knockout. In a way, it's petty to mention something so superficial, but looks mean a lot if it's superstardom you seek.
Of course, aesthetics matter little without talent, and flanked only by standup bassist Steph Dickinson, Shires held the Neumos crowd rapt with renditions of "Look Like a Bird," "Devastate," "Bulletproof," "Wasted and Rollin'," "The Drop and Lift," "The Garden (What a Mess)," and "A Song for Leonard Cohen," among others. She might have snuck another tune or two into her 45-minute set were it not for her folksy, long-winded--and highly entertaining--stage banter, which included an anecdote about a recurring dream involving Sir Mix-a-Lot, who was on Shires' guest list but apparently didn't show.
Shires' voice is often compared to Dolly Parton's, but a better parallel might be drawn to Alison Krauss, what with their shared fiddlin' chops. In fact, if one engages in the imprecise science of career forecasting, Krauss' is the career trajectory that Shires seems likeliest to follow. Whether that's the path she chooses is entirely up to her, as Shires is the rare artist who can punch her own ticket.