Published on March 26th, 2014 | by Jon Santiago0
Review: Jason Isbell and Company Rise Up at the Music Hall
Jason Isbell, Cory Brannan
Charleston Music Hall
Touring behind his critically acclaimed 2013 release Southeastern, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit packed the Charleston Music Hall this week to the rafters in one of the most deservingly sold out shows we’ve seen in a good long time.
For most critics, Southeastern is the watershed album of Isbell’s musical (and personal) evolution to date. Cited in NPR Music’s 50 Favorite Albums of 2013 among other accolades, Southeastern may have drawn mixed responses for its almost-too-slick-for-its own-good production, but Isbell’s songwriting on this album hit it out of the park as literature.
With Southeastern, Isbell put together a story collection worthy of any wannabe Great American Novelist. Here are songs that bring together emotional depth and cinematic sweep. And say what you like about the recorded versions; onstage, Isbell delivered his three-minute long epics as sharply rendered tales, portraits of dislocated lives battling changes almost too painful to bear. Gritty and lyrical, soulful and defiant, Isbell’s stage performance pulled the crowd into living these songs right along with him. As the evening progressed, both his voice and commitment seemed only to grow stronger and more focused.
From the elegiac “Live Oak” to the darkly romantic “Cover Me Up” and “Traveling Alone,” Isbell’s set kept delivering those moments when the separation between singer and song does not exist.
And the audience? Well, who needs a seat? On the main floor, the crowd was almost unanimous: on their feet for the whole show, standing with Isbell, rooted in place, the usual back and forth for drinks and such largely forgotten.
Isbell’s band, the 400 Unit — bassist Jimbo Hart, Keyboard player Derry DeBorja, drummer Chad Gamble and local hero Sadler Vaden (formerly of Leslie) on guitar — stood out as the kind of musicians who know how to put everything in support of the song. Nothing more, nothing less. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t a treat to hear Vaden trade guitar breaks with Isbell. It is. But the focus doesn’t stray very far from the stories these songs have to tell.
Do we believe Isbell when he says, “It’s been a lot of fun touring behind this album”? Given the unforgiving light Southeastern shines on most of its characters, we imagine this could only be true in the context Isbell goes on to give: “What I’m trying to do is have as much fun as possible singing a bunch of sad songs. That’s what the tradition of folk and country music are all about as far as I can see: bitching and moaning.”
Isbell’s final word on the subject: “Thanks for giving [Southeastern] a chance. It’s a really good feeling when the stuff you just wrote connects with people as much as stuff you did 10 or 12 years ago.”
So. Does Jason Isbell have anything left to prove? Nah. Prob’ly not. And it looks like he might have some very welcome surprises for us in the years to come.
Photos by Jon Santiago.
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