BY FRED MILLS
Back in January the long-running Austin City Limits PBS series aired another solid episode (#585, if you’ve been counting), this one featuring Jason Isbell on the first half of the show and Neko Case for the second. As viewers only saw about 30 minutes of Isbell’s original August 19, 2013, performance, however, it’s nice to now have the entire set for our viewing pleasure.
Call it a victory lap for both Isbell and the fans who’ve embraced his Southeastern album since its release in June of last year. (Go HERE to read our interview with Isbell about the album.) Beautifully recorded and edited, the Live At Austin City Limits DVD showcases Isbell’s band—which included, this evening, wife Amanda Shires on fiddle and backing vocals—while still keeping the focus firmly on the bandleader. Austin’s expansive Moody Theatre is a great place for ACL shows; the signature Austin skyline backdrop plus the tasteful lighting scheme never fails to bring out the very best in the musical guests, and the audience typically responds in kind. Credit should be given to the series’ producers and crew for making ACL a must-view—and, if you happen to be in Austin at the time of a taping, a must-attend.
This night’s performance boasted a setlist similar to, though truncated for taping purposes, the one I had seen in Raleigh a month and a half earlier, with a good chunk of the new record featured prominently alongside a handful of Isbell classics culled from both his solo and Drive-By Truckers catalog. Of the latter, particularly standouts are the slow-burning rocker “Go It Alone,” the jaunty, toe-tapping/hip-swinging “Codeine” and moody DBTs anthem “Danko/Manuel,” but it’s a midset Southeastern four-pack that seals the deal here. “Traveling Alone,” Isbell’s plea/proposal to Shires, takes on additional resonance with her onstage beside him, answering him with affirmation through her plaintive violin notes. “Elephant,” which Isbell prefaces with a little warning that suggests it isn’t going to be a happy song by any stretch of the imagination, has if anything grown more elegant and poignant in concert. “Stockholm,” likewise, is turning into one of Isbell’s greatest and most deeply-felt love songs, one with that all-important universal quality that allows anyone to relate. And then “Super 8” provides the audience its full-on release, rock ‘n’ roll catharsis at its best. As with the show I took in, Isbell closes things out with the Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” the perfect number to take things up and over the top and send the crowd out into the streets, buzzing and humming and maybe even doing a little levitating.
Incidentally, don’t eject the DVD at the end of the concert: included is a 14-minute program of bonus not listed on the sleeve featuring behind the scenes clips and a revealing interview with Isbell. He talks about his pre-release expectations for Southeastern (the idea was to craft a complete album as opposed to “a bunch of junk along with just a couple of great songs”), his reaction to its critical and commercial reception and how gratifying it has been to see its songs evolve onstage during the subsequent touring.
It’s funny, Isbell muses, how fans react to all the “sad songs” he’ll perform—how they like to commiserate. Says Isbell, “For some reason they love to hear your sob story if it rhymes.”
Amen, sir. That we most certainly do.
BONUS MATERIAL: Behind-the-scenes clip featuring “Super 8” (live + rehearsal), cameramen setting up their shots and the band backstage; ten-minute interview with Isbell.