JASON ISBELL @ BLUEBIRD THEATER | 9/4/13 Jason Isbell didn't demand respect last night, but he certainly commanded it with his music. As he played a blistering set at the Bluebird that spanned two hours, the crowd sang along, hooted and hollered out requests, but on multiple occasions the talkers (tsk tsk -- you know who you are) were seen being shushed, giving him a level of respect that testifies to the kind of clout Isbell's developed in his brief yet illustrious post-Drive-By Truckers solo career.
T. Hardy Morris lathered up the crowd admirably with a set of downtrodden songs that were reminiscent of Bonnie "Prince" Billy and the whole damn canon of modernist, minimalist folk singers. This was all fine and well -- you can hardly go wrong with a lap steel guitar and some seriously dark lyrics -- but by 9 p.m., we were thirsty for The Rock.
And The Rock we did receive, as Isbell emerged in a simple black button-down carrying a guitar, leading the set off with "Flying Over Water." That, and maybe half of last night's songs were from Southeastern, an album that is unquestionably Isbell's breakthrough and will likely end up on many critic's best-of lists come December. It would surely end up on this crowd's list, if their singing along with every single word of this song was any indication.
More mass singalongs followed. Another Southeastern standout, "Go It Alone," was followed by a couple Drive-By Truckers tunes, "Goddamn Lonely Love" and "Decoration Day." These were songs built for audience participation and lonesome drives; they work on a number of levels. And, like pretty much all of Isbell's catalog, they're deceptively simple. How many jackasses do you know who play acoustic guitars and sing about bad loves and bad decisions? Stop counting -- you get the point. Isbell does it better than anyone you know, and he does it casually and humbly, and before you get to the second verse, he's probably already sang a line that has cut your heart up.
"Elephant" and "Live Oak" came next, bringing the show to its self-reflective, coffeeshop-esque midpoint. Perhaps the set wasn't planned that way, but it was necessary to do a couple acoustic numbers because Isbell's guitarist's amp had stopped working. A few minutes later, Isbell announced that the band needed to take a break to fix the technical difficulties. An intermission, as it were. Ten minutes later, the band resumed. "You just gotta reboot it, close out all your apps," Isbell joked, showing no sign of stress over the fact that one-fifth of his band stopped working temporarily.
The Southeastern hits keep on coming. And they were the best of the lot: "Stockholm," "Different Days" and "Cover Me Up." During the last one, without warning, the entire audience appeared to be having a collective moment of something... spiritual. It sounds corny because it kind of is. But screw it -- sincerity is corny, and sincerity is what Isbell's music is all about. Irony felt about a million miles from the Bluebird last night. If the whole crowd had engaged in a mass hug during "Cover Me Up," I'd have hardly been surprised.
And then the spell was broken. Isbell and the band closed out with "Alabama Pines" (from 2011's Here We Rest) before returning for an encore that ended with the Rolling Stones' "Can't You Hear Me Knocking." It may have appeared an odd choice of covers for a Southern rocker like Isbell, until you consider the fact that the song was recorded at the famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Isbell's hometown. Talk about paying homage to the homeland.
Personal Bias: Isbell and I are from nearby towns in north Alabama. As such, nothing in recent memory made me as homesick as seeing last night's show. Random Note: When Isbell said that he loved Denver, it wasn't an empty compliment: He recorded Live at Twist and Shout here in 2007. By the Way: Best commentary of the night came courtesy of fellow Backbeat scribe Ashley Rogers: "Jason Isbell wants to charm the panties off your girlfriend. Politely."