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. @JasonIsbell - 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