I made friends with everyone at the Jason Isbell show
Jason Isbell shared the billing with Hard Working Americans at the Ogden last night. Isbell took the stage promptly at 8 p.m., and that seemed to throw almost everyone for a loop. At about 8:10, with the club only at three-quarters capacity, Isbell was already into his second song, "Go It Alone," off of 2011's Here We Rest. Worried that I'd missed my favorite song, I spotted a friendly cowboy (complete with a ten-gallon hat) at the bar and asked him if Isbell had opened with "Alabama Pines."
"No, 'Stockholm,'" he said. I breathed a sigh of relief and he clapped me on the back. "Don't worry, you're safe!"
Everyone at a Jason Isbell show is friends. Maybe Southern hospitality infiltrates the crowd, or maybe it's that we're all lonely expats thrilled to be around our people again. There's a distinctive regionalism that pervades Isbell's work. Hell, his last record was called Southeastern. Throughout the show, as he name-dropped Southern cities in his lyrics, the crowd would pipe up in scattered yips in recognition of their home towns. In lieu of doing the standard quick-and-dirty introduction of every member of the band, Isbell introduced each member individually after the first few songs. And with each one, he included their home states: Alabama, South Carolina, Maryland -- emphasizing the southeastern pedigree that makes Isbell's music so distinct.
Isbell's Southern roots come through in song form and in lyrics. He comes from a family of musicians, divided between Pentecostal Holy Rollers and Church of Christ -- a sect that famously allows no musical instruments or dancing. His lyrics are steeped in place. Halfway through the set, on "Cover Me Up," when he sang, "Girl, leave your boots by the bed/We ain't leaving this room til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom," I'm instantly back on the playground in North Carolina peeling apart the sticky magnolia blossoms. This is what gives country music its staying power. It's nostalgic, and on its worst days it can be cloying. But when it's like this -- pure and honest -- it's hard not to identify with it. No matter where you're from, the themes ring true: loss, memory, place, longing.
Isbell plays every show like he just invited a few of his friends over to hear some new tunes. There's no pretense, no rock-star posturing. "I know a lot of musicians ask how you're doing and they don't really care," he says. "But I care. I would be very upset with myself if everybody didn't have a good time." If the lack of cell phones and idle conversation was any indication, the crowd was having a great time. Toward the end of the set, as Isbell ripped into some of his trademark howling, the crowd exploded into peals of screams and applause.
After playing Drive-By Truckers favorite "Decoration Day," Isbell ended his set with "Super 8," an anthem to shady motel rooms that probably sums up how a lot of folks feel: "I don't wanna die in a Super 8 Motel!" Isbell prepped the now-filled-up club for Hard Working Americans in what seemed like an honest endorsement. "You're gonna love these guys. Todd Snider is about as good a songwriter as there is in this world."