Live Review: Jason Isbell with Damien Jurado at The Moore Theatre 8/7

photos by Alan Lawrence (view set)

If there’s another performer who has received two standing ovations for a single song at the Moore, Jason Isbell should call them and see if they’ll go for best two out of three, because chances are that he’ll win. The revitalized Southern songwriter is at a career high at the moment, and no other song captures his turnaround more than “Cover Me Up”, the same song that received the aforementioned applause. The first roar of applause came for the line “I swore off that stuff forever this time”, the most explicit reference in his entire songbook to his own personal demons, and the second came when his backing band, the 400 Unit, reemerged onstage to build the song in to an emotional, triumphant climax. It was both nakedly sincere and borderline theatrical, but that’s Isbell’s style: incisive, magnetic, and often breathtakingly brilliant in its ability to extrapolate as much significance out of his subjects as possible. And since Isbell is firing on all cylinders like never before, he is quite arguably at his highest peak to date, making his stop in Seattle at the Moore a snapshot of the Alabaman journeyman’s latest shining chapter.



The selection of Damien Jurado of a support act was an apt one. Unlike Isbell, Jurado’s career path has been more level, a steady progression through different tangents of folk tradition, typically filtered through the indie rock lens of his native Washington. The bare bones guitar-and-microphone setup Jurado used at the Moore is both suited to his songwriting and suited for the venue, so those factors made his succinct, 45 minute run through his catalog a success almost by default. Despite being set up the same way he created and performed his earliest material, Jurado’s vocal and guitar performance reflected the more smooth, percussive work from his Richard Swift-produced albums (particularly 2011’s Maraqopa and 2014’s Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son) and the usually mum songwriter even told spoke (albeit briefly) about his sartorial choice (Isbell and his band’s style of dress inspired Jurado to wear a coat that night) and his adoration for playing at the Moore, a venue where, in his youth, he took a bus into town just to listen to the bands from outside the buildings. Jurado’s understated, lyric-heavy approach was the perfect warmup for Isbell, if not only for its brilliance in its own right, but also because it stood as a sharp contrast to the headliner.

While Jurado was quiet and soft spoken, Isbell certainly wasn’t. Even his earliest songs are loquacious and equally as detailed. Within traditonal country and rock structures and chord progressions, Isbell worked longer narratives and more complex conceits into his verses with an audacity that most songwriters of his age didn’t have and with more success than nearly everyone else who did. Although he only had a few songs per Drive-By Truckers album, his batting average was stronger than leaders Patterson Hood or Mike Cooley, producing far more great songs than he did merely good across the three albums he was with the band. But on the solo albums that he made after being ejected from the Truckers, Isbell’s output was far less consistent and he looked destined to occupy a cult audience for the rest of his career. Of course, that was all before Southeastern, Isbell’s 2013 musical and personal rebirth, the album that documented his personal turnaround across his most diverse and powerful set of songs either with or without the Truckers. After a victory lap tour that saw him move into his best form as a performer, he returned earlier this year with Something More Than Free, an even more wide-ranging and nearly as good followup to his magnum opus that was on full display when Isbell arrived onstage at the Moore on a Friday in August. After one of many charming asides – his line about a Southern man telling better jokes is on the money – he and his backing band, the 400 Unit, jumped into the swaggering “Palmetto Rose”, followed by the tumbling “Stockholm”, and the first pre-2013 song of the night, Drive-By Truckers’ “Decoration Day”. What Isbell’s concerts display that his albums don’t (with the possible exception of Something More than Free) is not just how brilliant of a songwriter he can be, but also how diverse his output is. Within the realms of American roots music – folk, country, bluegrass, blues – Isbell has moved between those lanes in a notable fluid manner, and when he and the band would transition from rockier numbers (“Never Gonna Change”, “Flying Over Water”, “Super 8″, each outfitted with an extended guitar solo from Isbell) to his acoustic numbers (“Codeine”, “Tour of Duty”, “Alabama Pines”), it reflected how the 400 Unit have transitioned from being Isbell’s onstage anchor (or, on his worst nights, his safety net) onto his four onstage foils, equally billed both nominally and functionally with Isbell for the night’s performance. That’s not to say that Isbell took a backseat though. He is, even if he won’t say it out loud, a showman through and through, and even though his songs don’t need much theatricality to give them a little lift onstage, that didn’t stop him from throwing in an extra guitar solo or tossing off a humorous anecdote inbetween songs. And these were just two examples of just how vibrant Isbell looks onstage these days. Not only is he a hundred miles removed from the messy state he was in during the very rough 2012 acoustic shows opening for Ryan Adams, he looks more full of life than he ever has at any point of his career and he’s taking full advantage of it. Playing his staples as if they were cornerstones of any beginning songwriter’s education – a status that will history will almost certainly bestow on, at the very least, “Outfit” and “Cover Me Up” – and playing the new material in a fashion that proves that his best work is hardly behind him.

On his first signature song, Isbell wrote “Don’t tell them you’re bigger than Jesus / Don’t give it away“. He obviously didn’t take his own advice. For longtime fans and newcomers alike, watching Isbell finally reach his full potential has been nothing short of exhiliarating. Not to belabor the redemption narrative that surrounded Southeastern, but Isbell simply looks healthier and happier (take it from someone who saw him before Southeastern) than he ever has, which makes his recent musical triumphs icing on the cake. Not unlike his sometimes tourmate (and almost-Southeastern producer) Ryan Adams, Isbell’s renewed focus over the last few years has produced some of his best work in an already outstanding catalog, and he’s moving into the prominent (and, hopefully, elder statesman) role that he once seemed like he’d never make it to. But he did, and judging by the earnest grin on Isbell’s face as he and the 400 Unit took their final bow, he’s more thankful than anyone for it.

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