Concert Review – Jason Isbell – The Ark – June 27, 2013
Most of Jason Isbell’s fans probably first heard of him during his tenure with the Drive-By Truckers. As the 3rd and youngest of 3 great songwriters he brought great tunes like Decoration Day, Never Gonna Change, and Outfit to the Trucker’s set along with a youthful energy and new depth that they needed at the time. It’s Outfit that perhaps most associate him with, even to this day – a 6/8 letter from a father to his son, and for many southern-rock/alt-country fans, the single song that we associate most with the first decade of the new millennium.
Isbell split from the Truckers in 2007 and released his debut solo album Sirens of the Ditch. Since then there have been a couple more full lengths, a live ep and a double live album, each release building on the previous , each one separating Isbell from his past with better songs, performances, flow and emotion. Last month he released his 4th solo album – Southeastern – and the transformation seems to be complete. The album is deep, dark, sparse, and full of everything you want from Jason – great lyrics, tasty guitars, and well executed tracks where every last note matters.
The Southeastern Tour hit Ann Arbor last Tuesday for an intimate show at The Ark. It’s not an ideal venue for a rock show – with a “members only” bar, “members only” preferred seating, and “sit down, be quiet and watch” mindset, but it’s small and close, with great sound and a forced bond between performer and audience. Despite my grumbling about the drawbacks, it worked. The 400 Unit, Jason’s band since his first solo tour, are a tight, energetic bunch, each knowing their place and each lending the exact flavors needed to the Southeastern-heavy set. Sober for over a year now, looking healthy and fit, Jason’s voice was in fine form – better than I’ve ever seen him, and as my date said, “He sings the shit out of every note.” His guitar, like a second voice, was also in great form – as much or more than it was back at the Magic Stick when he would trade licks with Cooley on the classic DBT songs.
Five tracks in he played Outfit and the Ark crowd erupted, so he followed it up with Decoration Day. The DBT songs are always fun to hear, but the new songs are the centerpiece of the set, and each one was delivered with all of the conviction you could ask for – and then some. We were ready to walk out after he said goodbye before the most rockin’ track from the new record – Super 8 – when he went into an absolute killer cover of the Stones Can’t You Hear Me Knocking to end the night. Just…wow.
He seems to be at once comfortable with the part audience that can’t get past the old stuff and the fact that he has newer (and better) stories to tell. The pitch is paying off – we’re buying it. We’ll still cheer and toast to the DBT stuff, but the future is brighter than it’s ever been for Jason Isbell fans. He was a member, but he’s no longer in the shadow of his former band. He’s got his own stories and voice, and there’s a broad empty canvas in front of him.