Jason Isbell at Ryman Auditorium (Nashville, Tenn. – October 24, 2014)
One of the problems with music criticism is that, sometimes, a performance (or album) is so unspeakably stunning that words don’t — can’t — fairly capture or convey the experience. Such was the case when Jason Isbell began his three-night stand at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium by playing Southeastern, one of the best albums of 2013, from top to bottom for the first time ever.
Isbell’s wife, Amanda Shires, opened the evening with a cool and vibey set that could have been her audition for a quirky, but charming (and not-at-all creepy) character in a David Lynch film. Shires treated us to “The Garden Song,” “Wasted and Rollin’,” and “Shake the Walls,” among others, with delightfully told tales sprinkled in between despite the fact that, at one point, she noted, “I made a set list that said, ‘Don’t talk,’ but I left it in the dressing room.” Isbell joined her for “The Drop and Lift” before she closed the set with some fierce fiddling on “Look Like a Bird.”
When it came his turn, Isbell took the stage with Shires, guitarist Sadler Vaden, bassist Jimbo Hart, drummer Chad Gamble, and keyboardist Derry deBorja. Starting from the top, Isbell leaned so far into the choruses of “Cover Me Up” that the immediacy of his plea was made even more palpable than on the record. His voice soared up through the rafters and the crowd roared repeatedly in response, particularly in support of the “swore off that stuff” line. As Isbell preached to an impassioned choir of fans, the band eased itself in over the course of a tune that felt as sacred and solemn as a hymn on this night in the Mother Church.
While the audience regained its footing, the band powered through “Stockholm” before easing off a bit for “Traveling Alone” on the way down to “Elephant.” Isbell laid this stunner out with only Shires and deBorja backing him. The other musicians returned to rock “Flying over Water” in the best way possible. After a gentle take on the touchingly bittersweet “Different Days,” Isbell introduced “Live Oak” by recounting how he met a 9-year-old girl in Boston who said it was her favorite song and asked how the lady dies at the end. Isbell, thinking on his feet, told her, “Maybe she doesn’t die. Maybe he just buries her.”
It’s nearly impossible to single out highlights from Southeastern, but “Songs That She Sang in the Shower” would have to make the cut based merely on the worlds that Isbell draws with his words: “On a lark, on a whim, I said there’s two kinds of men in this world and you’re neither of them. And his fist cut the smoke. I had an eighth of a second to wonder if he got the joke.” He pulls the listener right into the scene. You can’t help but feel the tension in his chest as he offers, “In a room by myself, looks like I’m here with a guy that I judge worse than anyone else. So I pace and I pray and I repeat the mantras that might keep me clean for the day.” Just like on the record, this song live was so flawless that everyone in the hall wanted to crawl inside it.
After the shuffle of “New South Wales,” Isbell took a jab at folks who have complained that “Super 8” sticks out like a sore thumb on the record by countering that it was supposed to do exactly that. He said he woke up one morning and thought, “Man, I’d really like to write a song that sounds like the Rolling Stones.” So he did. And got married the next day. Live, “Super 8” was much less of a sore thumb and the crowd rocked right along with it. Coming off the high with a stumble, Isbell conceded, “That was so much fun, I lost my balance.” Closing out the Southeastern portion of his set with “Yvette” and “Relatively Easy,” Isbell let Vaden step up with a couple of substantial solos.
Following a short break, Isbell and company dove into the catalog with tunes that opened everything up and allowed the band to stretch right on out and fill the space. Gamble, in particular, hit harder on “Decoration Day” than he had all night as Isbell threw down a bit of slide before handing it off to Shires for a fiery fiddle run then Vaden for a blazing solo. Next up was “Outfit” from his Drive-By Truckers days succeeded by “Alabama Pines” and “Go It Alone.” A good bit of the audience was on its feet for this whole “encore” and everyone rose up after Isbell and Shires finished the night with a touching take on Warren Zevon’s “Mutineer.”
Southeastern is a master’s class in songwriting with Isbell effortlessly shifting from storyteller to memoirist, depending on the tune. The remarkable thing about Isbell’s live rendering of these songs is that he sailed the highs ever higher and dropped the lows even lower with not a single note phoned in or tossed off. Of all the jaw-dropping performances that have been held within the Ryman’s walls, Jason Isbell surely made this night rank right up there.