I know you remember that night some years back when we swapped songs up on the mountain after a grandtastic bike ride. I played “Officer Down” by N.Q. Arbuckle of Toronto and your perspicacious ears picked up on the line, “It’s hard to be a good man listening to the Drive-By Truckers.” Since you’ve been a Southerner now for more than half your life, you played “Outfit” by DBT, written by Jason Isbell of Alabama. I remember countering with my belief that Drive-By Truckers were primarily driven by Patterson Hood and you countered by saying that Mike Cooley was an invaluable Trucker (I had never heard of him).
Fueled by post-ride endorphins and high-octane beers, we entered the musical boxing ring, with your cousin John calling it after several rounds. But we both knew you had won the bout. That night I downloaded “Outfit” and a few cuts from Isbell’s solo breakthrough record, Southeastern.
A few weeks ago, I entered a contest on WYEP for tickets to Isbell’s March 2 performance in Pittsburgh at the extraordinary Benedum Theater. I didn’t have to answer a trivia question or really do anything other than provide my name but, just for good luck, I entered Barbara’s name instead of mine. A week or so later, I received an email with the good news.
Now, one problem was that it was on a Wednesday night and Bridey had to make a three hour drive to Akron the next morning. That, and the fact that she barely knew any of Isbell’s or the Truckers’ work, save for his “Super 8” song that had gotten her attention on WYEP. But, you know her, she’s an angel of a different magnitude, and she agreed to make the hour-plus drive to the show, with a return time pushing midnight.
I made her an Isbell “primer” to listen to on the ride in. I culled songs from Southeastern, Something More Than Free, Live from Alabama, the aforementioned “Outfit,” and “Never Gonna Change,” another DBT number I gleaned from their show in Royal Oak, Michigan, the night before, found on the wonderful www.setlist.fm. I threw in a couple of Townes Van Zandt covers, Isbell duos with Elizabeth Cook, and an Amanda Shires song, “Swimmer…Dreams Don’t Keep” that has had me in its thrall for ages. Shires, as you know, is a talented fiddle player and singer who joined forces matrimonially with Isbell a few years ago and, our luck holding strong, joined the 400 Unit on this night.
The five-piece 400 Unit, made a sextet by Shires, is exceptionally tight. You know how you can pick up on certain players drifting off as they play a song for the 700th time? Didn’t see any of that on this night. Isbell is a gracious band leader, taking the time to introduce one bandmate after the first song, then another after the second, and so on. It has the effect of giving each player his due, and you get the sense that this is a band that eschews drama.
Something More Than Free just won a Grammy for Best Americana Album, but not a single mention of it was made. Is this because Isbell, like many discerning musicianados, views the Grammys as irrelevant or insipid? Who knows, but I know most artists would have been touting their latest honor so soon after its announcement. This is a man, and a band, who let the music speak for itself.
I did some tallying on the night’s offerings: Southeastern 8, Something More Than Free 7, Here We Rest 2, Drive-By Truckers 2. Standouts were “24 Frames” (the opener), “Decoration Day,” “Alabama Pines,” and “Traveling Alone,” back-to-back. The former my favorite Isbell recording, the latter a beautiful melody that brought a beam to Bridey’s face. “Children of Children,” from the new record, exemplifies Isbell’s genius songwriting skills — at once full of heartbreak but suffused with hope. The first encore was “Elephant,” his ode to a cancer-stricken friend. I whispered to Bridey, who underwent her own life-threatening experience last year, that it was a “cancer” song, and she shot me an, “Oh, I wish you hadn’t said that” look. But the song celebrates his friend’s life and spirit, and isn’t that what we’re looking for in life … and art?
They finished with “Codeine” — a romp whose intro put me in mind of Old Crow’s signature song, “Wagon Wheel” — and we did a little dance in the balcony, poised for the road.
Thanks for the turn-on, amigo,