How It’s Done: Jason Isbell Throws Down Some Rock and Roll in North Carolina
It’s been a wild few years for Jason Isbell, one can only imagine. A stunning songwriter with an impressive track record, he met and fell in love with another stunning songwriter who helped him sober up and participated in a sort of songwriter challenge with him. For who knows how long, both disappeared for the day, wrote a song, then came together at the end of the day to share what they’d created. This gave rise to some of the most extraordinary work of his career thus far. Tell it the way people tend to tell stories, and the whole thing comes across like a particularly provocative episode of the TV show Nashville, except that all this really happened. And, somewhere behind or around or through the dramatic arc of it all, life went on, with all its unsexy, uninterestingness; all its quiet moments and unknowables, and the stuff that makes someone need to make more music when they’ve already spent a lifetime doing just that.
Isbell wrote at least 11 more songs (but I’m guessing quite a few more) and laid them down for an album called Something More Than Free, which will drop on July 17 via Thirty Tigers. I’ve been listening to it for a few weeks now. It passes the toddler test (my daughter loves it, even though she can’t possibly understand it). But it also stirs my stomach and chest into a colorful, stormy swirl every time. In fact, if Southeastern had never existed, this would easily be the best work of his career. But it’s hard to top the scariest honest moments that come through in songs like “Cover Me Up” and “Relatively Easy.” Then again, telling the truth isn’t a contest. As long as Isbell can keep telling it this way — through stories that he embodies even when they’re not his own, with the empathy and intuitive emphasis he just automatically brings — we will all be better off.
On a beautiful late spring night this past weekend, Isbell took the outside stage at Pisgah Brewing, in Black Mountain, NC. First up, though, was Amanda Shires, who delivered a collection of tunes from her various releases, but shone the brightest on the ones from her 2013 album Down Fell the Doves. How that disc was so overlooked, is beyond me. It came from an artist who had finally found her stride as a songwriter. It felt like the opening of a door, and I’m excited to learn what she found in there, when her next album comes.
Shires is a gifted songwriter whose fiddle-driven tunes balance darkness, humor, and intrigue in a way that is nowhere near as easy as she makes it look. Speaking of which, though clothes have nothing to do with anything musically, she deserves accolades for making it through that hour in those shoes, that pregnant, and still managing to sing and play, to rock hard, undaunted and undistracted.
After a short break, Isbell arrived ten minutes ahead of schedule, maybe just to enjoy the view from the stage before darkness swallowed it up for the night. The view at Pisgah is a handful of Smoky Mountains beyond the ugly industrial buildings of the brewery, and this juxtaposition created the perfect setting for the blue collar revelation and redemption songs like “Speed Trap Town” that dominate Something More Than Free. It also made the guitar-driven rock tunes from further back in Isbell’s catalog, like “Go It Alone” and “Never Gonna Change,” all the more noticeable.
In fact, as a sworn life-long hater of guitar solos, I was pleased to find myself rapt by Isbell’s various turns on his instrument of choice. Sometimes, he walks as far forward on the stage as he can, juts his chin up an inch or two, closes his eyes, and rips the everloving crap out of his guitar. Other times, the solos seem to catch him as unaware as they catch everyone else. It’s as though his fingers start pacing the fretboard demanding the space, and his tight band creates it for them. “Never Gonna Change” was the strongest moment of the night in that regard, so it’s good that he saved it for toward the end. We’d stepped back to the rear of the crowd and took it in as the confluence of sheer noise onstage fashioned its way into that shockingly catchy melody. Red and yellow lights shot across the air at diagonals, like the flames that seemed to be pouring from Isbell’s muscular guitar. It was a feat of rock and roll. It was how it should be done. Even a guitar solo hater like me had to recognize.
But it wasn’t all hard rocking. The sizable acoustic set started eight songs in, with “Different Days,” from Southeastern, and lasted another eight songs, through an intimate and heartbreaking turn on “Elephant,” with only Isbell, Amanda Shires, and keyboardist Derry DeBorja. Between those two, came an exquisite rendition of “Alabama Pines,” the always-stirring “Cover Me Up,” and a particualrly raucus, almost celebratory turn on “Codeine.”
Taken at face value, it was an excellent show, balancing new material and old, a few Drive-By Truckers tunes thrown in for good measure. It felt like a solid tour through his remarkable talent, and the whole arc of life that’s gotten him to where he is now. It’s hard to take a songwriter like Jason Isbell only at face value, though; there is so much more brewing below the surface of his work. And, knowing the narrative that’s been repeated about him in every review for the past few years — including, granted, this one — it was nice to spend this gorgeous, clear, warm night in the presence of his music and witness the freedom that comes when a group of talented people just give it all they’ve got.