Jason Isbell at The National
Before a show I make a point to tell myself I won’t be writing about it, usually in a (sometimes vain) attempt to quiet the part of the brain that forms sentences instead of shutting up and experiencing things. It actually worked this time, but I felt compelled to write about seeing Jason Isbell at The National last Thursday anyways. In my best of 2013 post I classified last year’s Southeastern as an album I had yet to listen to much but suspected I would like it if I ever got around to it. To be honest, I had listened to it a few times, but always in a distracted state of mind, and that’s really no way to appreciate that record. It also helps that my appreciation of folk/country and singer-songwriter type material has increased in leaps in bounds lately (surely due in no small part to the numerous singer-songwriters I’ve befriended in recent years). After finally digging in, I found a richly crafted bunch of songs which expertly navigate the balance between imaginative story-telling and heart wrenching personal narrative.
Great songs find a way to make the specific sound universal, and that’s something Isbell handily accomplishes here. “Live Oak” might be my favorite example, starting evocatively with an a capella run through of the chorus, “There’s a man who walks beside me, he is who I used to be/And I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me”. The song is the story of a man running from his past, unsure if the love he’s found is predicated on the man who lived his previous lives. Running parallel to that interpretation is the knowledge that Southeastern is Isbell’s first record since becoming sober and getting married, and yet, even with two concrete interpretations, when he delivers that chorus there’s a universality to the currents of doubt and regret that underpin the song.
Then seeing it live, hearing a hundred or so extra voices join that chorus, there’s another layer added to the song, seeing the personal element reflected in the rest of the crowd, reflected back to the guy on stage with a guitar, singing at us. Which kind of gets to one of my favorite parts of the show, the countless minor unspoken communications between Isbell and his band and the crowd. After any particularly gregarious bout of cheering, we would be met with a silently mouthed “thank you”. Guitar solos were interspersed with a quick glance to the crowd, eyes seemingly closed, then a glance to the rhythm section to make sure they were still having fun (they were) then down to the guitar to unleash so more theatrics (and let me just note my appreciation that not only is Isbell that rare singer-songwriter with lead guitar chops, his playing is also imaginative and uniquely him; see: that “Danko/Manuel” slide solo, damn). There was also the mid-verse, in between line look away from the microphone with a squinched face that seemed to say “ooohh, that’s a good line I wrote!”.
But far and away my favorite moment of the show came early on, during a rendition of the Drive-By Truckers showstopper, “Decoration Day”. Once the lyrics ended the band seemed to be letting the song come to a close, a final power chord drifting into the rafters as the cymbal crashing crescendo fizzled into a careful splash. Isbell, who had drifted to the drum riser, with his back to the audience turned to look over his shoulder and, though maybe not intentionally, gave a look to the crowd. Anyone familiar with the song knew what was going to happen next; huge drum fill, screaming guitars, all hell breaking loose into a twin-guitar carnage coda. I’m sure there were more than a few people in the audience who weren’t prepared for it though, and Isbell’s look was almost like a wink to all those in the know: “yes, shit is indeed about to happen, and those people have no idea”.
Which of course it did, as his lead guitarist broke into a rather devastating solo. Which I expected, and even though I admit I probably imagined all this and really he was just stretching a crick in his neck, it still made the whole spectacle that much more satisfying knowing (or imagining) that kind of communication can happen in a room so large. Great performers know how to simultaneously make you feel like you’re having an individual conversation with them while being a part of a larger whole, experiencing something together, and that’s exactly what Jason Isbell brought that night.