Listening to Jason Isbell’s newest album was a true revelation. A few album’s later and he’s really moved beyond his life with the Drive-by Truckers. Now when I hear about a concert on the other side of DC from me, I think twice about heading out to H street. But when I heard Isbell was coming to town, I decided to make an exception. And wow, Isbell did not disappoint. In the confines of the small Rock & Roll Hotel venue, Isbell switched between early rockers, acoustic tunes and his strong suit, dyed-in-the-wool country.
And that’s where Isbell really shines both on the record and in person. When Amanda Shires stepped on stage with her trusty fiddle, Isbell’s show electrified the crowd. The first fiddle notes of “Alabama Pines” and the crowd was primed for the sing-a-long portion. “Somebody take me home . . . ” Shires fiddle was a bit quiet, but her notes were totally essential and changed the course of the show.
As the show really kicked into high gear, Isbell, Shires and the band whipped into a rousing version of single “Codeine.” The song sounded as straight twangy as you could imagine with a rock band. Shires fiddle was turned up yet again and the true brilliance of Isbell’s songcraft came to the fore. While he’s always been an engaging performer, Isbell seems completely comfortable changing between the country and rock.
Isbell is no slouch in the lyric department. His songs show a maturity and thoughtful nature that belies his rough rocker exterior. “I can’t get to sleep at night, the parking lot so loud and bright. / The AC hasn’t worked in 20 years, probably never made a single person cold/ I can’t say the same for me. I’ve done it many times / Somebody take me home, through those Alabama pines.” Isbell’s images and subtle feelings are as poetic as anyone writing today. He admits that’s he’s made people cold and wants some serenity in his Alabama Pines. The words are as authentic as can be.
And in any Isbell show, you’re bound to get the rockers. That’s where he started and the show seemed predictably good. The guitar riffs were strong, songs were good. The show was moving through solid tune after solid tune and some Truckers favorites. It wasn’t until the country shift that the show truly took off.
The show wasn’t without drama; actually, the sound system was anything but pristine. After quite loud squeaking and some entertaining belly-aching from Isbell, he took matters into his own hands. He said, “we’re going to fix this right now.” Everyone covered their ears as he made his attempt. To his credit, Isbell performed through it and made jokes as he “threw a tantrum.” He was a true professional.
Isbell shows are still like a secret. You don’t want others to know how good he really is, but you know they’ll find out soon enough. If shows like this are any indication, nothing will slow him down at this point.
Photos by Suzanne Davis
About the author: Jeff is a teacher in the Boston area. When not buried correcting papers, Jeff can be found plucking various stringed instruments and listening to all types of americana music.