Jason Isbell’s album Southeastern has been hailed by many as the best album of 2013 and it’s a damn shame that it wasn’t nominated for a Grammy. His solo work is something to behold and has only gotten better since his departure from the Drive-By Truckers.
There are certain artists who write such “from-the-heart” music that you feel a connection beyond that of the usual musician/listener relationship. Jason’s work on Southeastern is his most personal and emotionally raw yet as he walks you down a windy path of addiction, pain, love and redemption. It’s as though we are actually listening to him conquer his demons. As someone who has struggled with alcohol abuse I can identify with the emotions that this album evokes. This review is going to be less about the music, because Jason and the 400 Unit are always on, that’s a given. Instead I want to focus on what makes Jason’s shows and music a different experience than any number of equally talented musicians. He has a way of bringing you into his world and opening up to an audience that lets you know that you’re experiencing something unique, not just the same stage banter and set as the last night and the next.
My first impression when I arrived at the Taft Theatre was that Jason’s fan-base has grown considerably since I last saw him in Cincinnati. The theatre was nearly sold out and was one of the most interactive and fun crowds I’ve see at a show in years. Jason took it all in stride as he talked and joked with the crowd who wished him happy belated birthday no less than 6 times. There were many funny moments during the show including when one fan yelled sarcastically, “Play the sad one!” and Isbell responded with a chuckle “They’re all sad, but I’m glad they exist. Any don’t believe what anyone else tells you, people who write happy songs are some sad mother fuckers.” But my favorite was when he introduced his bass player and commented on his snazzy tie. “Look at that tie! That’s a man who respects his audience” said Isbell, “Nowadays bands are showing up in cargo shorts and board shorts… dammit, unless you’re Neil Young, don’t wear shorts on stage.”
As I mentioned before, Jason and the band were as tight as any I’ve heard. They played with just the right amount of live attitude so as not to sound stale, but close enough to the recording that you could actually see the amount of care that was taken in being sure that these songs were presented as perfectly as possible. The crowd occasionally cheered mid-song when Jason sang about overcoming is alcohol problems, particularly during “Cover Me Up” on the line “I sobered up, And I swore that stuff, Forever this time.” During that moment I actually got a bit choked up and was so impressed with the sincerity of the crowd and how much they supported Jason and were so happy to see him come through on the other side, happy, healthy and writing some killer songs.
In short, a Jason Isbell show is about more than just music. It’s about a story of pain and triumph. I for one and glad that there are artists like Jason keeping story and emotion in country music, ‘cause let’s be honest, we already have enough songs about trucks and tight jeans.
Oh, and a final note… they were not impressed by Cincinnati style chili.