Jason Isbell has been in my life for ten years now. From the first time I heard “Decoration Day”, to the last time I listened to “Traveling Alone”…through his divorce and departure from his previous band…through the solo tours and the late night tweets inundating my Facebook feed. Even when there were times I wish I didn’t know anything beyond his music, I felt as close to him as one can feel to a complete stranger. I was disappointed when he went out on his own, and I was even more disappointed when he felt he had more to say via social media than he did via song, but that disappointment only added to my excitement when I learned he had remarried and sobered up. At the end of the day, nothing Jason Isbell does in his personal life should matter to me, and at the end of the day it really doesn’t, but when personal choices lead an artist down a road to their most engaging, heartbreaking and satisfying work to date, and when those choices manifest themselves into a performer that can hold an audience hostage to their every word, it does matter.
There’s a part of me who wants Isbell’s music to be my own. I don’t want to share it. But as the sold-out crowd proved last night, the music is now public domain. We can tell ourselves that the roar of applause during “Cover Me Up” (when he sang “and I swore off that stuff, forever this time“) was our way of encouraging his recent life decisions, but we don’t know Jason Isbell any more than he knows us. The reason we couldn’t help ourselves was because we know he’s never been as good as he is right now. I’m sure replacing a handle of Jack with a bottle of water has done wonders for him as a person, but what really matters to us is what it has done for him as an artist.
Southeastern showcases some of his finest songwriting. His physical state now allows for a 2 hour performance. His voice is pitch perfect. And his band are that much better because they have a new standard to live up to. This is no longer a side project for an artist who used to be in another band. Jason Isbell has one of the best voices in music today and the 400 Unit are among some of the finest musicians in the business. And if that business wasn’t such a wasteland of worthlessness, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit would be topping charts from Manhattan to Muscle Shoals and Montana to Marrakesh.
As for the show itself, it wasn’t without it’s difficulties, but a quick glance over the setlist will make any fan drool. There were a few old ones for those who’ve been around awhile, there was a Stones cover, and there were a smattering of songs from across his solo career, but it was the new material where the band really found their groove. After a short intermission due to the “damn machines” giving them trouble, the band came back out to show us how Southeatern was made. “Stockholm”, “Different Days”, “Relatively Easy”, “Cover Me Up” and “Traveling Alone” were about as good a run of songs I’ve seen in recent memory. It’s not often that the ‘new’ songs are a highlight of the night and that fact wasn’t lost on Isbell. He made a point of mentioning how nice it was to hear people singing along instead of saying “fuck this” and “heading to the bathroom“. Which is funny, because people were talking about that during the intermission…
“kinda glad they had sound problems because I didn’t know when I was gonna be able to piss, he doesn’t have one song I wanted to miss”.
And that was true for most of us in the crowd. The cover of “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” acted as more of a victory lap (allowing each member of the band to shine), but other than that, every song played a pivotal role in defining who Jason Isbell is in 2013. It might have taken almost a decade, but he has become his own man. I can say that with confidence, because for the first time ever, I just got through an entire write-up about the man without name checking the band that introduced me to him.
Flying Over Water
Go It Alone
Tour of Duty
Goddamn Lonely Love
Cover Me Up
Never Gonna Change
Heart on a String
In a Razor Town
Can’t You Hear Me Knocking