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Jason Isbell flourishing as a solo artist

by Ryan Snyder

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The band was already well past the halfway mark of its communal bottle of Jack Daniels Sunday night at the Blind Tiger when Jason Isbell decided to tap into his reserve of the primo, vintage stuff. The Drive- By Truckers tearjerker “Goddamn Lonely Love” sat squarely in the middle of a succession of kindred pieces. The crowd huddled around the front of the stage, swaying in unison with beer bottles aloft, some loudly commiserating in the song’s devastating chorus with far less affection for its tender delivery than Isbell applied. It’s a favorite remnant of Isbell’s fertile period as a Drive-By Trucker, but with three exemplary solo albums to his credit, there was no doubt that this crowd came to hear some Jason Isbell songs. A casual listen to hit newest record, Here We Rest, suggests that Isbell is leaning toward a gentler, more distinctly country sound. His hard-luck, everyman narratives sound more like early 2000s’ Ryan Adams than Adams’ recent output itself does, but hearing those songs in person proves that to be anything but the case.

Live, Isbell’s back- ing foursome the 400 Unit paints a clearer picture of the myriad sentiment behind his songs. Isbell and the band came out swing- ing with the emotionally charged “Go It Alone,” a song that feels so much bigger in person. As dynamic a songwriter as Isbell can be, he wasted no time in reminding what a solo debut, Isbell filled the spaces between Quarter.” The room ate it up, and Isbell gave fierce guitarist he is as well. He was trading the travails of long-distance romance with back the appreciation with a set that touched licks with guitarist Browan Lollar from the the guitar break from Led Zeppelin’s “No on every era of his catalog that one could outset, but in the midst of “Try” from his solo debut, Isbell filled the spaces between Quarter.” The room ate it up, and Isbell gave the travails of long-distance romance with back the appreciation with a set that touched the guitar break from Led Zeppelin’s “No on every era of his catalog that one could Quarter.” The room ate it up, and Isbell gave back the appreciation with a set that touched on every era of his catalog that one could ask for. He balanced honest, piercing nar- ratives with absurd guitar heroics on songs like “Dress Blues,” while keyboardist Derry DeBorja painted the songs with enough soul to remind you that this is Muscle Shoals music. A heavy mood hung on the first half of Isbell’s set — at least until the Jack was polished off. Even Isbell acknowledged that he had been playing a lot of criers, but’  promised that if his drummer Chad Gamble had the chance to sing one, he’d make right. Gamble already exuded a bit of a Levon Helm vibe from the exaggerated way in which he whipped his sticks around, but his offering of the Meters’ “Hey Pocky Way” was like a second line down the rows of a cornfield. Maybe it was the booze flowing on stage and off, but with the first notes of every ele- giac to the South Isbell produced, the reac- was a song for his father, written as a gift and the tender military hymn “Dress Blues,” tion in the room seemed to grow. He offered when he was penniless. Between the South- Isbell wasn’t going to ease off of the heavy up his post-war ballad “Tour of Duty” as a ern nostalgia of his DBT classic “Outfit” subject matter.

Consummate storyteller that tribute to a friend, while “Outfit”, he said, was a song for his father, written as a gift and the tender military hymn “Dress Blues,” when he was penniless. Between the South-Isbell wasn’t going to ease off of the heavy ern nostalgia of his DBT classic “Outfit” subject matter. Consummate storyteller that and the tender military hymn “Dress Blues,” Isbell wasn’t going to ease off of the heavy subject matter. Consummate storyteller that he is, the gravity of Isbell’s words filled the room, and the energy never abated. His time with the DBT is clearly far in the rearview, a memorable stepping-stone to a career as a terrific solo artist, whether he’s showing himself to be a remarkable axeman or a wordsmith wielding an even mightier pen. And for all the songs he writes about life going a little bit wrong, everything Isbell is doing these days seems right.

Follow Ryan on Twitter @YESRyan

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