At the Lincoln Theater a couple of days before July 4th, the Nashville-by-way-of-Alabama rocker brought his Southeastern tour to BLURT’s hometown and proceeded to shoot off fireworks in every direction possible.
BY FRED MILLS
“We ain’t never gonna change.
We ain’t doin’ nothin’ wrong.
We ain’t never gonna change
so shut your mouth and play along.”
(—“Never Gonna Change,” Drive-By Truckers)
The above-quoted song—once a manifesto, now a virtual mea culpa for its songwriter, Jason Isbell—arrived roughly mid-set in what was a tour-de-force of a Southeastern-promoting performance for the man and his band, previously billed along lines of “& the 400 Unit” but nowadays simply “Jason Isbell” (this despite only a couple of changes in the old 400U lineup). It’s worth pondering because, for Isbell, a lot of things have changed, and a lot of things stay the same.
As noted in yours truly’s recent review of Southeastern, Isbell is clean and sober these days, following a protracted stint shutting down bars and, by some measures, attempting to shut down his own career, sundry details of which, if occasionally oblique or metaphorical, crop up on the album. Did I mention it’s a masterpiece of storytelling, in which the man takes full responsibility for his misdeeds while never giving an inch to those who might have doubted him along his journey towards enlightenment and redemption? He also found a good woman to join him on that journey, and her spunk and spirit informs many of the record’s best songs.
Several of ‘em were highlights of the July 2 Lincoln Theater (Raleigh) show, which evidenced a near-capacity crowd of a broadly-drawn age demographic that, to a man and a woman, was singing along with material both old and new. There was low-key concert opener “Stockholm” and spookymoodycool “Flying Over Water”; the acoustic heartbreak confessions of “Different Days” and its close kin “Live Oak” (the latter required a gentle admonition of, “This is serious…” from Isbell, as the audience was wildly supportive at virtually every turn, never missing a between-song tuneup or instrument swap to loudly voice enthusiasm); and the clear Southeastern candidate for induction into the Isbell canon o’ kickass, raucous barband raveup “Super 8.” MIA from the setlist was album standout “Traveling Alone” but that song’s lonely plea is probably best reserved for a more low-key setting, and no doubt Isbell is saving it for just such a moment, like a solo radio session or a duo performance with his wife, songwriter and fiddler Amanda Shires (who has a none-too-shabby album of her own about to drop in a month or so). And each tune shined in its own fashion under the tutelage of the Isbell band, retaining key melodic and lyrical charms while getting fleshed out in subtle ways—notably, keyboardist Derry deBorja’s fills and filigrees around the edges—and making a case, in all instances, of being in for the long haul, repertoire-wise.
Isbell’s no dummy, though; as strong as Southeastern is, and as familiar with it as the Lincoln audience clearly was (at BLURT’s sister business, Raleigh’s Schoolkids Records, we’ve been selling the record at a steady clip since its June 11 release and it’s currently on our top sellers list), he’s a natural entertainer, and entertain he did, thumbing easily through his back pages. Among the other highlights:
- “Decoration Day,” a Drive-By Truckers classic, which drew immediate cheers of recognition at its opening chords, and which found Isbell unleashing the first of many blistering slide solos for the evening. New guitarist Barry Billings also got to take a sweet fretboard run near the song’s closing moments.
- “Heart On A String,” the old Candi Staton soul nugget of Muscle Shoals origins, and a standout from Isbell & the 400 Unit’s 2011 album Here We Rest. At one point Isbell unstrapped his guitar in order to fully engage the mic and mic stand, closing his eyes and crossing his heart multiple times.
- “Codeine.” Also from HWR, and while not the first singalong of the evening, its foot-stompin’ and toe-tappin’ tenor made it the first one that saw virtually the entire crowd, balcony included, with mouths and arms stretched out wide.
- “Go It Alone,” the Stones-styled cruncher from HWR that, to a degree, defined the “old” Isbell: maverick, rocker, self-sufficient wolf. Another singalong.
- “Dress Blues,” part of Isbell’s “military trilogy,” empathy and storytelling at its finest.
- “Danko/Manuel,” from DBT 2004 album The Dirty South. It’s a complex, moody number that’s simultaneously straightforward and blazing. “Let the night air cool you off,” the singer admonishes, while the band urges him on with a heartbeat pulse. “I ain’t livin’ like I should,” he continues, and heard in a contemporary context, nearly decade after originally penned, one wonders what Isbell himself hears now in his own words. Both men namechecked in the title are dead; Isbell is more alive than ever before. What comes next?
Tonight, at least, what comes next is the final song of the evening, a totally unexpected cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” and it absolutely flattens those of us in attendance. A long vamp through the song’s intro gradually yields the staccato, kinetic verses, which in turn open up to Isbell and Billings swapping licks like classic Mick Taylor and Keith Richards—Isbell holding down the fluid, lyrical Taylor solos with such panache you’d swear he was the original architect.
And then we are done. The band, beaming, comes together at stage front, salutes us goodbye.
Wow. Shut your mouth and play along? Not a chance, Jason – our mouths were wide open, our jaws scraping the club’s floor tonight… That part’s never gonna change, I suspect.