Jason Isbell Digs Deep for Soulful Set at Historic Venue
As an artist, you’ve reached a certain level when fellow musicians come to hear you play. And, when it comes to Toronto venues, you’ve also joined an elite club when you play Massey Hall. Last night Jason Isbell achieved both in one memorable evening. He played the 123-year-old concert hall for the first time, where many of his musical heroes have played before him. The weight and the importance of this milesteone was not lost on the songwriter, who, after the show, tweeted: “I gotta say, @masseyhall did not disappoint. We had high expectations and they were exceeded.”
The growing adoration by Isbell’s industry peers was also on full display at Massey Hall. Many of Toronto’s music community attended the near sellout show, including Miranda Mulholland (Harrow Fair), Andrew Cash (The Cash Brothers), and Devon Cuddy. Even Canada’s favorite rock-and-roll band – The Tragically Hip – were well represented with lead guitairst Rob Baker taking in the show. Aftterward he tweeted: “Just saw @jasonisbell @masseyhall. 1 of the best shows I’ve ever seen. No gimmicks, just great musicians in service of superior songwriting.”
Baker’s social media assessment nailed it. This evening was about witnessing a songwriter’s songwriter backed by a tight band, taking his words and music to new sonic spaces with no special effects needed.
With a whiff of the bud soon to be legal in these parts lingering in the air of The Grand Dame on Shuter, Amanda Shires took the stage shortly after 8 p.m. with her four-piece band. Sporting a black skirt and a lacy black top, Shires shone from the moment the lights dimmed.
Shires’ short set was marked by two- and three-part harmonies, fine fiddling, and finger picking. Isbell’s wife displayed a voice as strong as Dolly, as sweet as Emmylou, but with Lucinda’s sense of urgency. Each note echoed off the rafters and lingered long after each song. Hoots, hollers, and whistles rained from the balcony acknowledging her artistry. In between songs, Shires’ humorous banter with the crowd – whether it was introducing her bandmates and their strange road habits or speaking about her husband – added to this fine opening performance that set the stage – and tone – for the 90 minutes of musicianship that followed.
Isbell and his mates in the 400 Unit, who were tighter than an old Mason jar left out too long in the rain, wasted no time getting down to business by opening with a sizzling six-minute, emotionally-driven version of “Anxiety,” off his sixth and most recent disc, Nashville Sound. The song featured some gorgeous two-part harmonies between Shires and her husband. From there, the Muscle Shoals native offered a tight take of “24 Frames,” the storied song from Something More Than Free (2015).
Throughout the rest of the set, Isbell and his band let the ghosts of Massey Hall guide them to new heights, playing a mix of songs old and new. It was the songs off Nashville Sound that stole the show. Highlights included six-part harmony and some serious guitar playing on Isbell’s Gretsch White Falcon on the politically-charged “White Man’s World,” and a touching rendition of “Last of My Kind.”
Following “Cover Me Up,” which began with just Isbell and his wife, then saw the lead guitarist join with some slide, followed by the rest of the band, the crowd rose for a standing ovation – the first of several to end the evening.
After returning to the stage with an energized and teary-eyed “If We Were Vampires,” Isbell closed this electric night of music with “Decoration Day,” the title cut he wrote for the 2003 record by his former band The Drive-by Truckers.
Fans filed out of Massey Hall satisfied, but as I heard one patron say – and this reviewer agrees – I could have listened to this storied songwriter and his band for many more hours. Just the songs please. No gimmicks indeed.