I'd never held a lover in my arms or in my gaze,
So I found another victim every couple days.
~ Jason Isbell, "Live Oak"
Introducing the song "Live Oak," Jason Isbell said that he's always surprised - pleased, but surprised - to see kids at his concerts. "My songs aren't exactly in the wheelhouse of music that appeals to children," he said, to general laughter. "They're pretty dark." This led to a very funny anecdote; but the point is, his songs ARE dark, and I wondered how he would be able to put together a satisfying set list for a live show. (I saw Harry Chapin in concert once. I know what it's like to walk out of a concert completely engulfed in despair. NOT what you want your audience to take away.)
But Isbell and his band pulled it off by interspersing the few upbeat songs (my least favorite) from the Southeastern album as well as some of his material from the 400 Unit and the Drive-By Truckers. Some of it was a little too countrified for me, but it stirred up the crowd and lightened the atmosphere.
The opening act was Damien Jurado, whom I researched only enough to make sure he wouldn't set my teeth on edge. He sang love songs unaccompanied except for his amplified acoustic guitar, and his set felt like it was taking place at a 1970s coffee house. It was fine. Very listenable in a background kind of way.
Isbell, on the other hand, was over-amplified. I was surprised. I expected him to be seated with an acoustic guitar because Jurado was, and because that's how Isbell is posed in his publicity photos and in the video for "Traveling Alone." But no, he stood and prowled about the stage with his guitar, accompanied by electric guitar, bass guitar, drums and a keyboard guy who looked like he belonged to Rod Stewart and Faces. I wished I had had my earplugs with me: the reverb under the balcony was annoying and sometimes painful.
I was also surprised by the young lady w/long hair, down front, who spent the concert dancing and waving her arms in Woodstock type moves, which seemed odd for songs like "Alabama Pines." And the guy on the aisle making metal horns with his fingers. There seems to be some confusion about how to classify Isbell's music.
I like the dark songs. I was sad that the final encore, which therefore got stuck in my head, was "Super 8 Motel," kind of a formula-pop country piece of fluff that's danceable but not significant. I told my friends that I would have to listen to "Yvette" on the way home, to eradicate the encore. "Is that the cancer one?" they asked. No, it's the incest one. (I did mention he's pretty dark?)
But the one that disturbed me most was an older tune from the Drive-By Truckers, "Never Gonna Change." I wasn't familiar with the song, but from what I could catch in concert it reminded me of Charlie Daniels' "South's Gonna Do It Again." Contrast that with this judge's remarkable sentencing speech, which is about the change that needs to take place. (Read it.) I may have misunderstood the song, though. As I read the lyrics, there may be self-mockery and self-loathing embedded in that refrain, "We ain't never gonna change/We ain't doing nothing wrong/We ain't never gonna change/So shut your mouth and play along."
More and more, it seems like artists don't like hearing requests from (obnoxious) audience members. Twenty years ago, someone hollered "Rosie!" in the middle of an introspective Jackson Browne set. It was the I'm Alive tour, full of shattered dreams and regrets. He looked up and said, "Really? We're doing love songs here. But I guess, if you can't love yourself, who can you love?" - and they proceeded to play "Rosie," a song about, um, self-fulfillment. Okay, it's a song about whacking off. But I digress. That was 20 years ago. In the past year, I've seen four different artists flat-out refuse to play the songs shouted at them by the audience. Isbell had an interesting twist. Someone hollered, "Outfit!" and, in that courteous Alabama drawl, he said, "You know, it's an interesting thing. That's one of my favorite songs to play, 'Outfit.' But I have a rule. I won't play it if somebody hollers it. I play it when I want to play it. So you got a choice: you can hear it, or you can yell it at me."
It turned out "Outfit" was the final number before encores, a guaranteed crowd-pleaser (and sing-along, for some). For me, he did play almost all of the dark songs from the new album, including my favorite - "Traveling Alone" - which had not been on the set list for recent concerts. So I felt good about the show on my own level, as well as at the "nicely crafted set!" level.
I had to summon the confidence needed to hear her goodbye;
And another brief chapter without any answers blew by.
And the songs that she sang in the shower are stuck in my head
Like "Bring Out Your Dead" and "Breakfast in Bed."
~ Jason Isbell, "Songs That She Sang in the Shower"