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Published: 2014/06/20
by James Murray

Jason Isbell, Blue Hills Bank Pavilion, Boston, MA- 5/31

When it comes to Jason Isbell, the narrative is familiar to anyone who has been paying attention: a well-publicized split from the Drive-By-Truckers, a couple of years of artistic middling and a continuing descent into substance abuse, rebirth, renewal, marriage, and, with arguably 2013’s best record in Southeastern, an ascent into American songwriting royalty. In 2014, his showcase of that dynamic collection resumes, unveiling itself to new audiences both here and abroad. But even as the dates pile up, Isbell shows no weariness; on the contrary, his songs find new breath and substance as time passes, as he proved in an opening slot for Ray Lamontagne along the Boston Harbor last Saturday night.

Isbell landed onstage just after 7:30, the sun waning but alive on a majestic New England summer night. Backed by his trusted band, the 400 Unit, he wasted no time in getting down to it, ripping through the anthemic, textured “Flying Over Water.” The chemistry amongst the players was immediately undeniable, keyboardist Derry deBorja’s Mellotron riding alongside a gritty crunch from guitarist Sadler Vaden and weaving a lively tapestry for Isbell to lift off from.

Isbell’s trusted Martin then emerged for a few, beginning with the steady, driving “Stockholm” and the plaintive, wistful “Different Days.” The former chugged along atop the force of drummer Chad Gamble’s sharp fills, the latter offered an early glimpse into Isbell the wordsmith: “And the story’s only mine to live and die with, and the answer’s only mine to come across, but the ghosts that I got scared and I got high with…look a little lost….” That Isbell is a brilliant lyricist is not news, but standing in the same room with the man a quatrain like that can hit like a hammer.

The band dipped backwards into the catalog mid-set with “Goddamn Lonely Love,” a song Isbell penned during his Truckers days. But while heart-wrenching, it introduced an important irony necessary to understanding the essence of Isbell as a songwriter. No matter how desperate, no matter how melancholic, no matter how hard he cuts—his saddest songs still tend to feel the warmest. He creates characters that surrogate his own demons, yes, but they surrogate ours, too. The tenants of pop country may sell out stadiums, but they cannot dream of making us really feel. Isbell owns that space, as he was happy to demonstrate again and again in Boston.

Of mention was the absence of Isbell’s wife Amanda, herself touring Ireland, whose sensitive fiddle adds elegance to the coarser parts of the live delivery. But deBorja employs a fairly deep bag of tricks behind the keyboards, which included abandoning them altogether for accordion on a frisky “Codeine” that found Isbell and him jousting front stage before carrying it home.
The initially docile Lamontagne crowd had grown visibly more appreciative by now, and conscious of the short set, Isbell moved in for the kill with two of Southeastern’s centerpieces. First was “Cover Me Up,” the impassioned statement track from a statement album, and one which should find him some hardware in Nashville at the Americana Awards this fall for Song of the Year. Next was the elegiac “Elephant” about witnessing a loved one’s submission to cancer. It was the most intense moment of the evening, but a reminder that sometimes embracing the light also means holding onto the dark.

A spirited run though “Alabama Pines” lifted the audience back up for the finish, before giving way to “Traveling Alone,” its chorus (“I’ve grown tired of Traveling Alone”) wailing across the giant tent atop a crowd of nearly 4,000 strong. Once a lament, Isbell now sounds like he’s laying down the gauntlet.

As he once remarked years ago in an interview, “Good things happen to people who underestimate their setbacks.” Perhaps Isbell would add more to that today, perhaps not. What is clear is that the same spirit that helped him emerge from his ghosts intact is running through his soul in every performance he puts forth, Boston assuredly not an isolated affair.

That’s one hell of a way to make a comeback. And really, the story is just getting started.

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