“I try my best to have a lot of fun playing really sad songs,” declared singer/guitarist/songwriter Jason Isbell from the Austin City Limits stage.”It’s kinda what I do.” Brooding melancholy isn’t usually a recipe for onstage success, but in the hands of Alabama native and former Drive-By Trucker Isbell, it’s the fuel for a mighty musical engine – what Facebooker Odam Hunt calls “an unstoppable force.” That talent powered a cool ACL debut, as Isbell brought his soulful voice, stinging guitar and acclaimed catalog of tunes to ACL in celebration of his stellar new record Southeastern.
Isbell and his band the 400 Unit opened with blasts of loud, Crazy Horse-style rock & roll, as “Flying Over Water” and “Go It Alone” served notice that this wasn’t going to be an easygoing country/folk show. Then it was straight into “Alabama Pines,” a wistful walk down memory lane that won the 2012 Americana Music Association Song of the Year award. He travelled that lane even further into the past, resurrecting his DBT classics “Decoration Day” and “Outfit,” the latter’s gorgeous waltz-time meditation on fatherly advice reiterating how early Isbell fulfilled his songwriting promise.
Once Isbell strapped on his acoustic guitar, the creeping darkness came to full flower. “Live Oak” and “Different Days” looked back at shameful days gone by with the hope that current loved ones won’t notice the craggy lines left on the character’s face. The jaunty but subtly disturbing country rocker “Codeine” (“One of my friends has taken you in and given you codeine”) induced shivers of unease as much as two-stepping. But the most poignant piercing of our collective heart came from the lovely, quietly devastating “Elephant,” a recollection of death and the difficulty of facing its facts. Despite its somber subject matter “Elephant” brought the biggest crowd response – acknowledgement of an amazing song beautifully performed.
It wasn’t all sad songs and waltzes, though. The atmospheric ballad “Cover Me Up” and yearning folk song “Traveling Alone” invited new love into a hard life, acknowledging the good influence a partner would have – apt, given the presence in the 400 Unit of Isbell’s wife, singer/violinist (and Lubbock native) Amanda Shires. He ended the main set with the sardonic “Super 8,” a greasy rocker in the Stones/Faces mode. Isbell and the band encored with “Danko/Manuel,” another of the songwriter’s noteworthy DBT tracks, and a blazing, guitar-fueled take on the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers gem “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” “Unreal ending,” noted John Raffaele on Facebook, “I am shivering.”
Blurring the lines of country, rock and folk, Isbell proved that he’s earned every inch of ink spilled on behalf of his excellent songwriting and confident performance. “Jason’s not just a musician, he’s a wordsmith…and a new favourite,” Stacye Carroll declared. “So glad you showcased him here!” We can’t wait for ACL fans to see this show and experience it for themselves.