Jason Isbell Danforth Music Hall, Toronto ON, February 29
Published Mar 01, 2016Jason Isbell has been riding an unlikely, but surely welcome, wave of popular attention these past several months. A recent Grammy winner for his remarkable 2015 record Something More Than Free, suddenly Isbell has gone from being the guy your music-obsessed buddy's always evangelizing to handily selling out a show in a 1500-seat venue on a Monday.
Since his emergence as a third singer-songwriter for the mighty Drive-By Truckers almost 15 years ago, Isbell has distinguished himself as a clear-eyed observer of working class identity and the complexity of Southern American culture. Today, for some reason, alongside Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson (both of whom share Isbell's producer Dave Cobb), what he does has become wildly popular. There isn't a likely hit in sight, and you couldn't find a radio-friendly cliché with a fine-toothed comb. But, here we are.
Last night's (February 29) varied set was dominated by material from his last three records — indeed, there wasn't one song from the two lacklustre albums he first recorded after going solo in 2007 — and was punctuated by a pair of tunes dating back to his Truckers days: the anthemic "Never Gonna Change" and early show highlight "Decoration Day."
Trading lightning licks with lead guitarist Sadler Vaden, propelled by his tight, soulful rhythm section, and enhanced by atmospheric fiddle from his wife Amanda Shires, Isbell was mesmerizing. From whisper-quiet folk to enormous guitar barrages, Isbell and his band the 400 Unit have found the touring sweet spot where the material all sounds lived in and the band appears relaxed and familiar, but all involved are still capable of surprise. Somewhere between slickly professional and shaggily homespun is the territory on which he's pitched his tent — and that tent is clearly getting bigger.
Opening with slow-burner "Palmetto Rose," and moving through crowd-favourites "Flying Over Water," "Alabama Pines" and "If It Takes a Lifetime," the show felt like it was building to something remarkable. Isbell even said as much from the stage, commenting on how much he loved the room and how much fun he was having.
Maybe that's what inspired the extraordinary performances of the show's second half. A pitch-perfect take on "Speed Trap Town," perhaps the best song he's ever written, and a tremendous encore performance of sing-along "Codeine" were clear standouts, but the show's inarguable highlight came during "Cover Me Up," a plaintive acoustic number from 2013's Southeastern featuring stellar slide guitar work from Vaden. His voice roaring from the depths of his chest, Isbell absolutely belted out the agonizing chorus, and the room was left shaken.
I wonder if I'll see another moment like that at a show this year. They are so rare, so magical.