Wednesday, July 19, 2017
My Discovery of Jason Isbell in Houston
Jason Isbell landed on my radar because of my wife. She heard a song, “Children of Children,” on our favorite streaming service, Radio Paradise, and played it for me. It’s a slow, quiet meditative song about his mother having him when she was just seventeen. That alone would qualify it as a great song, but when drummer Chad Gamble plays this one powerful beat, everything changes. Isbell drops the acoustic guitar, picks up an electric, complete with slide, and transforms the song into something wholly different. It is a sublime song and transcendent performance. Here he is performing it on CBS Saturday Morning in 2015 (The song starts around 1:45 but watch the short interview first).
He is touring in support of his new album, The Nashville Sound, with his band, The 400 Unit. My wife and I snatched up a pair of tickets and joined the intimate crowd at the Revention Center, a 3,400-seat venue that is the perfect size. It’s small enough that you’re never far away from the stage, but large enough to turn up the speakers and shake the rafters, which was exactly what happened last night.
Amanda Shires, a member of the 400 Unit and Isbell’s wife, opened the show. She plays violin—er, fiddle—like a lead guitar player. Her four-piece band ran through her songs with aplomb. The set was great. I don’t know about y’all, but opening acts are often the time where you chit-chat in the hallways waiting for the headliner. Not so with Shires. She held the audience with the charm and wit of her great lyrics, her beautiful voice, and surprising fiddle playing. My wife and I liked it so much we bought her new CD, My Piece of Land, right then and there.
Shortly after nine, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit took the stage, opening with the powerful “Anxiety.” I don’t know the new album well, but if there was any question about the power Isbell brings to a live performance, the first few bars of this song dispelled all doubts. This song is a good example of how Isbell can take the listener from a quiet moment to a blasting cacophony in the span of a single beat. As a fan of loud music, I was enthralled and grinning ear to ear. Little did I know this was only a taste of what was in store.
On stage, Isbell knows he is the reason folks bought tickets, but he is an unpretentious performer. Other than Shires and Gamble, the 400 Unit contains Jimbo Hart on bass, Derry DeBorja on keyboards, and Sadler Vaden on electric guitar. They all sing backup vocals. This is a tight band, one of the tightest I’ve ever seen. Vaden is so talented he could front his own band. Some band leaders might balk at having someone of Vaden’s talent in the band, fearing the other guitar player would overshadow him. Not with Isbell. No matter if he’s playing electric or acoustic guitar, Isbell easily cedes the spotlight to Vaden. The pair make for a compelling set of dueling guitars, both frequently playing with a slide. With Shires singing backup harmony, she and Isbell often look at each other, bringing in that special something to the songs. Frankly it reminded me of Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa. Not to make much more of the comparison, but Isbell on stage brought to mind Sprinsteen’s onstage charisma as he wandered the stage, standing next to certain members while others soloed, perfectly content to be in the shadows.
Frankly, most of these songs I heard for the first time (but not the last!). All were good, but three (no four! Five!) stuck out for me. “The Last of My Kind,” with its lyrics about modern society, being lost amid that modernity and wondering where he fits, was moving. “Cover Me Up” is the song he wrote for his wife. Again, having Shires on stage with him gave this performance that extra bit of specialness. The Revention Center is small enough that when Isbell sang “But I sobered up and I swore off that stuff forever this time,” many in the audience cheered him on, whether because they, too, beat ‘that stuff” or that he got his act together to make such gorgeous music, I couldn’t tell. Probably both.
The music of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit is a miasma of influences: rock and roll, country, soul, the Memphis sound, folk, and, of course, southern rock. He pays tribute to that influence with a massive cover of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Whipping Post.” Actually, massive is too understated a word. The second of two songs in the encore, everyone was on their feet, arms waving, just letting the music blowing off the stage wash over them. Shires soloed, but it wasn’t just some simple fiddle thing. It was high energy, rock and roll fiddle. Vaden took over and brought the level higher. Isbell is a master at taking the listener up and down the musical roller coaster. When I thought it couldn’t get any more intense, Isbell showcases why he is likely one of the most gifted guitarist playing today. I’m not exaggerating when I say the final song left me breathless. Even my wife, who isn’t always a fan of loud music—she even commented on it earlier in the show—was smiling at the intensity of this performance.
For some unknown reason, Jason Isbell hasn’t been on my listening radar. That all changed last night. His lyrics have depth and weight. He is one of the best guitar players I’ve ever seen—and I’ve been watching live music for over thirty years. As I was leaving last night, I heard some folks behind me talk about how underrated he is. Damn right. Those that have seen him live know how good he is. I now count myself among the converted. His on stage performance and energy captivated the audience last night. Isbell is a powerful singer. He could easily fill up the Toyota Center with his voice and music. Heck, he could play at the Houston Rodeo and fill up NRG Stadium. At least there, they could open the roof.
I have a pretty broad musical palette but somehow, up until now, have missed Jason Isbell. He’s a two-time Grammy winner! How did I not know about him? That ended last night. And I’m the better for it.
He will undoubtedly and deservedly play for bigger and bigger audiences the more folks discover him. The jealous part of me kind of hopes he keeps playing in smaller, more intimate venues like the Revention, but those days are likely numbered.
I’m so glad my wife discovered him, thrilled that we got tickets to the show last night, and blown away at what a complete performer and lyricist Jason Isbell is. He is the best open secret in the music business.
Here is his 2017 performance on CBS which includes three songs from The Nashville Sound. This performance compelled the couple who sat next to us last night to drive an hour from Galveston, on a week night, to hear Isbell perform.