“Last year was a son of a bitch for nearly everyone we know,” Jason Isbell sang at the outset of his show at Seattle’s opulent Paramount Theatre on Tuesday night, instantly energizing what he had to know was a copacetic audience in the opposite corner of America from where he’s lived his entire life.
But after banging out such originals as “Hope the High Road,” “24 Frames,” “Something More Than Free,” “Molotov,” and “Codeine,” Isbell announced that he and his band had worked up a special cover of Gregg Allman’s “Melissa,” conceding afterward how peculiar a decision it was to prepare a tune by a Georgia artist specifically for a Seattle audience.
Isbell’s new album, The Nashville Sound, never once mentions President Donald Trump by name, but it’s very much a prescription for how to confront the cultural barriers that have been jarringly reinforced by his election. On “White Man’s World,” which he also played in Seattle, Isbell — bluntly bearing the burden of Caucasian guilt — confronts the challenges his wife (the deft fiddle player and vocalist Amanda Shires) and young daughter face in a society that recently re-stacked the deck against women and ethnic minorities.
But by the end of the album, he parts the clouds a bit. Tuesday’s show opener, “Hope the High Road,” promotes civil discourse between people with opposing views, something that’s in short supply in America these days, while “Something to Love” bears a hopeful message for Isbell’s 2-year-old daughter — and really anyone looking for a reason to get out of bed in the morning, even if they’re in mourning.
“Most people hate their jobs,” Isbell told me in a recent phone conversation. “I got really, really lucky to have a job I don’t hate. My grandfather and my uncles were working-class folks, exhausted most of the time, but they took the time to play music with me, to bond with me in that way, and it’s made my life completely different than the lives of the people I grew up with. If you figure out one thing you love doing that much, it doesn’t matter what it is as long as you don’t give up on it.”
Isbell spent most of his Seattle show strumming an acoustic guitar. But when it came time to play “Decoration Day,” he plugged in, instantly transporting this writer to the beer-soaked floor of Mississippi Nights, the late, great St. Louis club where a cherubic Isbell fought through a fog of Jack Daniels and an extra layer of chin to deliver a series of astonishing licks alongside his then-bandmates, The Drive-By Truckers.
His physical transformation since then has been considerable. Tall, lean, commanding, and sober, Isbell still out-punted his coverage in landing Shires, but only by a few yards. It’s not for nothing that the song that got the biggest rise out of the Seattle crowd was “Cover Me Up,” easily the steamiest tune Isbell—or anyone, for that matter—has ever recorded.
Backed by his superb band, The 400 Unit (sans Shires, who’s busy playing a slate of solo gigs back home in Tennessee), Isbell’s two-hour performance was supremely satisfying — save for the omission of his best song, “Outfit,” which several audience members called out for as the show progressed.
But rather than ignore the elephant in the room, Isbell addressed it humorously, telling the crowd, “Call your dad and tell him you love him. I’ll play ‘Outfit’ next time.”