Jason Isbell / Lucero. Red Rocks. 09.14.16
“You come to shows here often?” It was an honest question, but it sparked a pissing contest of sorts. We were on the ramp leading into the venue from the Upper North Lot and a married couple behind us was trying to determine the odds of getting decent seats. It was my 27th show of the season and the guy next to me had been attending concerts in Morrison for over a quarter century, so the answer was “yes, we come to shows here often.” We were venerable statesmen of Red Rocks and, like most politicians, were happy to share our opinion. After a few minutes pummeling the unsuspecting husband and wife with our vast knowledge (they could have found their way to the soundstage blindfolded by the time we were done with them), the conversation expanded to bands we had seen in various places across the country. I will admit to being trumped on quite a few of the acts they mentioned, but when it came to Jason Isbell and the Drive-By Truckers, I proved myself to be the resident expert.
The props I received for having seen (and drank with) Isbell at Larimer Lounge were just the start. When I mentioned I’d seen him perform with the Truckers multiple times, as well as with Cooley and Hood at the Shoals Theater, and for three of his four-night residency at the Ryman, the respect I’d earned turned into a sort of apprehension. By that point we’d polished off the last of our beers and the line was starting to move. I didn’t have time to mention the fifteen Lucero shows I’d attended over the years, but I’d already succeeded in earning stalker status among my newfound friends, so it was probably best the conversation was cut short. The time for talking had passed. The gates were open and the scramble to get inside and get good seats for my last Red Rocks show of the season had begun.
We really our blessed to have such an amazing venue within a few miles of home. That fact isn’t lost on the musicians who grace the Red Rocks stage almost every night of the concert season.
“Y’all got it pretty good out here, thanks for having us.”
Ben Nichols became a father recently and he wore an unrecognizable coat of maturity on Wednesday night. The remaining black in his beard had lost the gray war and the shoulder-length hair coming out the back of his tattered hat matched perfectly. Strumming a guitar, with arms sewn up with bad tattoos, the frontman started the set out “nice and slow.” “Went Looking For Warren Zevon’s Los Angeles”, “Texas & Tennessee”, “Last Night in Town”, and “Union Pacific Line” were all performed acoustically, without the benefit of the horn section that has become commonplace at Lucero shows.
It was the first time in years I’d seen the core band in their classic, stripped-down state and there something personal (but almost bittersweet) about the whole thing; especially since the lighting kept them in shadows the entire set.
Ben’s brother, Jeff Nichols, makes movies (and if you have never seen them, you need to remedy that now) and his latest just received a standing ovation at Cannes. It’s called “Loving” and if you stay until the very end (“this is the song that ends the credits”) you will hear a new song; one that Ben performed solo on this particular evening.
It wasn’t until after plugging the film that things became electric. The “Downtown Intro” led into “On My Downtown”, and then “Sweet Little Thing” was dedicated Isbell and his boys. Rick Steff busted out the accordion for “Women & Work” (“it’s about whiskey”) and then Ben took it acoustic again for a story about his grandfather (“The War”).
“Look at y’all, this is absolutely terrifying,” Ben joked with the crowd, before demanding the darkness return. “Just turn the lights back off.” The show wasn’t sold-out, but people were stacked thick to the back rows, and even though it wasn’t Lucero’s first time on the Red Rocks stage, the pure weight of the scene seemed a bit much for them.
The show ended with a personal favorite, “My Girl & Me in ‘93”, from the new album. Then the set was over before it really got started. “We are on a limited time schedule here; we’ll play for two hours next time.” It was a promise I’m sure they will keep (Lucero shows usually run well into the night), but it was still disappointing to watch them walk off stage after a quick forty-five minutes. That disappointment was short lived though, because Jason Isbell was up next.
The magnitude of the venue wasn’t lost on Jason Isbell either. Anyone who listens to the 37-year-old knows he has a voice and a songwriting style beyond his years, and anyone who follows him on social media knows he has an ego to match, but the man seemed both humbled and empowered by the gravity of his situation on Wednesday night.
“Thank you so much for coming to the show,” he greeted the audience in his signature Southern drawl, before opening the night with “Flying Over Water”. Our rain coats and blankets were stored uselessly under the benches of the 17th row as Isbell’s voice cut through the relatively warm night air.
“This is the best place in the world to make rock ‘n’ roll music…those of you who live close by are lucky sons of bitches.”
“Go It Alone” brought us back to his slightly less assured beginnings as a solo artist, before a strong run of material from Something More Than Free rang out under the trio of stained glass windows swaying slightly above the stage.
The Jason Isbell who used to drink was one helluva guitar player, but the sober Jason Isbell is a classy guitar player. The way he stepped forward, during “Dress Blues”, and wailed on that thing with lightning fast fingers was quite the spectacle. Back in the day, the man would be a sweaty mess within the first few songs of a set, but he completed that mini-solo with a brow as dry as desert sand, and then proceeded to navigate us through the “Alabama Pines” like it was nothing.
“The directions are accurate, so if you are ever lost in Florida and need to find your way to north Alabama, that song will get you there.”
The performance continued on with songs old and new. “Traveling Alone”, “Codeine” (“my favorite part of the night, when Derry pulls out the blue accordion,”) and “The Life You Chose” proved once again how far Isbell has come since leaving his former band, but the great distance between then and now hasn’t caused him forget.
“I was here ten, eleven, maybe twelve years ago with the old band, opening for the Black Crowes. I always said I would be back here under better circumstances.”
That remark might have come across as a dig on the Truckers, but I think it was more a statement about his own health. Back-to-back performances of “Outfit” and “Decoration Day” followed, the former of which was dedicated to Ben Nichols (“I know he just had a little one,”), and both songs both served as reminders as to what a phenomenal songwriter Isbell was when he was just a young kid.
Those classics also paid tribute to the times long past…no matter how destructive they might have been. As he said from the stage he was sharing with Cooley and Hood at the Shoals Theater a couple years ago, he will always miss those guys and the songs they would perform together, but Isbell has new friends now; friends like Jimbo Hart (on bass) and Chad Gamble (on drums), and although his wife’s presence would be greatly missed (“I do wish she was here, but her album comes out tomorrow,”) Jason Isbell seemed comfortable enough in his own skin to go it alone when called upon to do so.
“Cover Me Up” just might be one of the best songs ever written and it was flawless in all its solo, acoustic wonder from the big stage. The crowd cheered, as they always do now, during the “sobered up/swore off that stuff” part and then the band came back out to really drive the ending home.
“Never Gonna Change” might be the most “DBT” song Isbell ever wrote, but like all his songs, he was granted full custody in the divorce. He’s raised it up well and I have to admit it sounds better every time I hear it performed live. In fact, it was so damn good at Red Rocks that I really didn’t know how an encore would compare.
Any set of songs that opens with “Elephant” is going to be more a cooling off period than anything else. That song is magnificently devastating, but it doesn’t exactly evoke adrenaline-powered fists in the air or anything. Instead, I found myself looking up at the moon, and the clouds coalescing around it’s shine, and the orange glow of the monoliths that held the crowd tight and kept them safe. I reflected back on the many shows I’d been lucky enough to attend in that incredible space. I hardly noticed when the band joined Isbell back on the stage for “Stockholm”, but then something he said caught my ears, as if mirroring my own thoughts…
“I can’t tell you how big a deal this is for us. I never thought it would come to this. Thanks for coming out. Thanks to America for even having this place!”
“Children of Children” ended up being the final selection of the night, and although it is one of my least favorite Isbell songs, it still sounded amazing. You’d think I’d get bored seeing the same guy perform the same songs so many times. Honestly, I think the same thing almost every time I go to a show. When we went to Nashville, I was the only one who planned on going to the Ryman all three nights we were in town. Everyone thought I was crazy. I was pretty much told that I could go alone because “who would want to go see the same show three times?” As it turned out, the man who described himself as a “punk, redneck, hillbilly kid from Alabama” helped steer everyone in my direction. Once Isbell starts singing, there is never any question as to why you’re at the show.
There is something so compelling about seeing Jason Isbell perform live. It’s not that he has an incredible stage presence or anything. It’s just his voice and his songs and the way in which he delivers them. There is a part of me that feels like I know Jason Isbell after seeing him so many times, but his social media persona tells a different story. For someone so good with a pen, he can come across as a dick on Twitter and Facebook at times. Despite some of the condescending things he posts, there is still no denying his voice, his songs, and the all-around ‘good guy’ he presents in front of a crowd. I will continue to buy his records and I will continue to see him perform whenever he comes through town. I am convinced he will be remembered as one of the greatest singer-songwriters of his time. And when that happens, I will once again drop knowledge on anyone naïve enough to ask.
Went Looking for Warren Zevon’s Los Angeles
Texas & Tennessee
Last Night in Town
Union Pacific Line
Good Enough for You
On My Way Downtown
Sweet Little Thing
Women & Work
My Girl & Me in ’93
Flying Over Water
Go It Alone
Something More Than Free
How to Forget
The Life You Chose
Speed Trap Town
If It Takes a Lifetime
Cover Me Up
Never Gonna Change
Children of Children