Jason Isbell and Holly Williams - The Orange Peel (Asheville, NC) - Jan. 23, 2014

There are times in the life of a music critic when you see a show or hear an album and all you really want to say is "holy shit." Analysing guitar solos and parsing the energy between people on a stage starts to feel a little like looking for the trapdoor in a magic show. You kind of have to just show up and witness the the part where the guy stands right up on the mic, the force of the melody bending his body back a good ten inches at the top, like his voice is the rock in a big human slingshot and the song grabbed a hold of the rubberband.

But that paragraph alone can't count as a blog post on this site, so I'll do what I can to bring you into the room, when Jason Isbell and his band rolled into the Orange Peel, here in Asheville, NC, last night. 

He opened his set with some rock and roll tunes he wrote, some for his band the 400 Unit, others for his other band the Drive-By Truckers. "Streetlights" and "Tour of Duty" were easy highlights. "Goddamn Lonely Love" was darn near a singalong, with a crowd full of hairy dudes, some pumping their fists in the air, punching the gut of their unseeable heartache, mouthing the words somewhat unconsciously. Then, as he changed into an acoustic guitar, Isbell said something along the lines of, "Those of you who came to see the folksinger you just discovered might be wondering why we're playing all these rock and roll songs. We like to try a lot of different things, but now we're going to play some songs off of my latest album Southeastern."*

With that, he lit into "Different Days", one of the most cuttingly self-explanatory songs on the disc I called the Best Album of 2013. And here's where things shifted. People were shouting out "Live Oak" and "Elephant" and "Stockholm" - songs that are  so remarkably painful, it can hurt to hear them. Beyond the realm of a dominatrix, there's no other profession where people beg you to bring the pain. Doctors don't get patients saying "Can I please have a spinal tap?" Nobody asks their mechanic to fix the car, just make the grating squeal keep going, as loud as possible. But, in music, once people know you're willing to go there, they just want to hear again and again, loud and clear, about your addiction, fear, abuse, disease. To the point that they'll shout out the request in the middle of you saying something. As Isbell has said, "People just love to hear your sob story, if it rhymes." 

It's an interesting phenomenon and, I think, speaks to the fact that we all just want to understand each other - and be understood. When we find the truth, we want to fix our eyes and ears on it, so that when something else steps into the foreground, we can have the memory of not being alone. It's an important space for an artist to occupy with that much intention. So few celebrated artists these days even dare. But, as an audience at this particular concert, we were lucky that someone as articulate, with such creative vision and apparent empathy, has chosen to bring their skills into that space. 

Isbell, for his part, tried to joke with the pleaders. "We play that song every single night," he said when someone called out "Live Oak." "But what we never do, we never play it right after someone asks for it."* 

And so the show carried on, with some incredible fiddle work from Isbell's wife, and fellow amazing songwriter, Amanda Shires. It's a treat to watch Isbell and Shires interact onstage, indeed to see his entire band work through a set. There seems to be a genuine joy and excitement about the soundscapes they manage to create together, a depth that can only come from being able to anticipate someone's next move and be surprised at the same time. If you weren't there, you could have felt as though you were, with just about every music blogger and critic in the area present, activating their social media avenues with exclamations and photos. Even City Councilman Gordon Smith Tweeted: "Wow. - Thx for coming to AVL and sharing your music!"

There's no easy way to include in all that the fact that Holly Williams opened the show with stunning train whistle-like three-part harmonies. Backed by bass and an extra guitar, Williams delivered more or less the same set I saw her perform last fall at the Americana Festival in Nashville, but there's no harm in repeating such a beautiful collection of songs. I missed the drums a little bit, but what was lacking in cymbal crashes, Williams made up for with heart and charisma. Similar to Isbell, she seems to be channeling something, just a vehicle for the simple, stirring stories that populate her songs. 

It should go without saying that you should catch these two when they come to your town.

*Not direct quotes. It was so jampacked in that room, I couldn't have written down his words verbatim if I'd tried.

photo by Amos Perrine, not from this show

Views: 2564

Comment by Amos Perrine on January 24, 2014 at 8:27am

Jason has been on a roll, saw him three times last year, at the Ryman  on my birthday and then two days later at an ACL taping where they played for 2 1/2 hours, unfortunately edited down to 28 minutes for the TV broadcast. And we will see him and Holly Williams this eve at the great Barter Theater in Abingdon.

Comment by Lisa dtsHurricane on January 24, 2014 at 12:10pm

Great review. I'm catching their show in 10 days and I can't wait.

Comment by Fred Arnold on January 28, 2014 at 6:33am

Nice review, Kim. This seems like a gig made in heaven. The protaganists from two of the best albums of last year in the same evening. I have seen Jason Isbell twice in London, both acoustic. I hope that now he is getting great artistic reviews and hopefully commercial success, he will bring his band to the UK.

Comment by Steve Rauworth on January 28, 2014 at 7:13am

What with what he's already been through and having Amanda to keep him honest, let's hope Jason Isbell can handle all the attention he greatly deserves. Fame and the media spotlight is a damn strange and corrosive thing. Remember, he's just a man, and there will be those who want to use his inevitable faults and mistakes to bring him down, like always happens with humanity's penchant for creating heroes and then ripping them apart. Like all of us, pain will no doubt find him again, and we want him to keep converting it into something that heals us all. He will not need us rubbing it in. We who love him and his music need to help in every way we can, because this talented man is an American treasure.

Comment by Jim Morrison on January 28, 2014 at 7:28am

 Great review. I love this thought: It's an interesting phenomenon and, I think, speaks to the fact that we all just want to understand each other - and be understood. When we find the truth, we want to fix our eyes and ears on it, so that when something else steps into the foreground, we can have the memory of not being alone.

Music is community and you've captured it well. I'm sorry I didn't drive over to Charlottesville to see Jason, but I am hoping to see Holly a lot closer to home later this year.

Comment by Vick Griffin on January 28, 2014 at 8:50am

Saw Holly and Jason as week or so ago in Wilmington (unfortunately Shires was not with him for that show).  Fantastic night - I was stoked to see Williams but let's face it - myself and the rest of the standing room only crowd was there to see Jason Isbell, and he and his band did not disappoint. Always enjoyed his more thoughtful contributions to the DBT catalogue, but damn if he's nailed it as a solo act. As good as "Goddamn Lonely Love" is, it's the quieter, more instrospective songs from "Southeastern" that stick in my brain. At one point, he apologized to the crowd for "playing so many sad songs" and then said (I'm paraphrasing): "don't be fooled by those motherfuckers playing all those happy songs, those sons of bitches are sad too." Ain't it the truth, Jason. Ain't it the truth...

Comment by Jim Hunter on January 28, 2014 at 9:07am

A week from today in Indianapolis...can't wait...

Comment by Richard P. Kronstedt on January 28, 2014 at 9:33am

It is my belief that Jason Isbell has been Blessed w/ Love & Sobriety....He & Amanda have found something together & you can see the JOY in their Music & in their videos.....may His Demons Rest in Piece....

Comment by John Abrahams on January 28, 2014 at 9:42am

Really nice review; thanks! And double thanks, because this made me realize that he was touring, which means I can go see him on Friday night less than an a hour away.

Comment by Vick Griffin on January 28, 2014 at 9:58am

@John - hope there's a ticket for you - he's been selling out everywhere he's played.

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.