Singer-songwriter Jason Isbell has cultivated a musical history filled with relationships of desperate participants and broken love. His story-songs are draped in meticulous details and a particularly fierce emotional resonance, and he constructs the kind of communal associations that give each moment its own distinct appearance. Stray threads of country, folk and Americana rhythms wind their way through each of his records, resulting in a diverse but bucolic introspection tinged with the movement of classic rock 'n' roll. And last night, I was walking into a sold-out show at Track 29, anxiously waiting to experience these sounds for myself.
During his years performing with Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers, Isbell contributed lyrics and music to some of the band’s most memorable songs, such as "Decoration Day" and "Outfit." His solo work since exiting the band in 2007 has been just as exciting in its own way, peeling away the dramatic country-rock ferocity of Drive-By Truckers for something a bit more measured and flexible. It still possesses a vivid country soul but engages his audience in a way that he wasn’t able to do working within a full band dynamic. This pastoral intimacy and lyrical insight are what I was hoping to witness as the evening progressed—and Isbell did not disappoint.
But before we get to him, we need to spend some time on the ethereal and gorgeous guitar work of Nashville-born musician William Tyler, a man for whom the guitar holds endless possibilities. Similar in aesthetics to artists like Robbie Basho and John Fahey, Tyler finds a particular exhilaration in the looping rhythms and subdued revelations that can be pulled from the strings of his guitar. As the show opened, he strolled out onto the stage with his band (a bassist and drummer) and took his place behind a selection of pedals, composing a simple but profound space from which to offer his remarkable rhythmic filaments.
Tyler’s studio recordings—all instrumental in nature—document a process of simultaneous discovery and orchestration, with his guitar working as the medium through which he focuses his creativity and passion. He crafted lengths of guitar melodies together, fashioning a dense mélange of sound and beauty. The movements of his hands and the noise that he was able to coax from his instrument were absolutely mesmerizing, a colossal integration of spirit and ability that seemed to produce a tangible shift in the way people were looking at his guitar. Joy and a sense of unexpected (but welcome) surprise overcame those in attendance as he wove these complex rhythms for our benefit.
After his set, the three performers exited the stage, and a restless energy began to work its way through the crowd. Everyone was anxious for Isbell to take the stage, and when he did, he completely ensnared the attention of each person there. With this being my first Jason Isbell concert—although I've been a fan for years—I didn't know how comprehensive his set list would be. Obviously, he'd pull from recent records, including his yet-to-be-released album "The Nashville Sound," but to what extent he would acknowledge his prior band's history I wasn't sure.
Any questions or worries I might have had prior to the show were quickly forgotten as Isbell and the band channeled a riotous country-rock swagger that touched on pure rock 'n' roll with various Americana flourishes. An early highlight was an incendiary performance of "Decoration Day," a song he wrote for DBT that has the mesmerizing power to submerge you in a nuanced and violent tale of retribution and family honor. His voice was clear and echoed off the high ceiling of the venue as the band whirled and built a cascading backdrop in which his affecting stories were able to roar and rumble without distraction.
Like their studio counterparts, these songs felt wholly realized and marked by rough living and harder truths. With each melodic turn and lyrical detour, the band built a brazen noise that reverberated across genres but contained a hesitant hope that would stretch its fingers out at different times, testing the air to see if it was safe to come out. As evidenced by his remarkable performance, Isbell isn't merely the sum of his rustic influences—his sound is culled from experience and inspiration, the kind of balanced aesthetic that few artists ever manage to discover. He seems to simply reach out and pluck this countrified catharsis from the space above our heads, where our cheers and whistles and claps joined to form a complex expression of admiration.
The show was nimble and tenacious, barely giving us a moment to catch our breath before pushing on. And in this rush of melody and movement, Isbell found the perfect combination of his influences and our expectations, and gave us a night of music that we won't soon forget. As the stage emptied and the venue began to do the same, the guitars still seemed to ring out. With the band having successfully offered their feral brew of country and folk sounds to everyone in the sold-out crowd, it was time for us to head home and consider the weight and emotional resonance of Isbell's work. We had experienced something honest and authentic, two qualities that are in short supply these days.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.