By Carter G. Shelter
More than a year and a half after he released “Southeastern,” Jason Isbell is still riding high on the masterful album. Graduating to bigger venues each time he tours, Isbell swung through New York on Saturday night to deliver a powerhouse show to a sold-out Beacon Theatre crowd.
After an opening set from quiet indie-folk singer Damien Jurado, Isbell, clad in an elegant all-black ensemble, took the stage with his band, the 400 Unit, and broke into “Southeastern” cut “Stockholm.” Each song that followed felt as though it could be on a greatest-hits collection of Isbell’s work. Tunes like “Flying over Water” and “Dress Blues” reflected his prowess as a songwriter. However, it was the more driving numbers like “Decoration Day,” from Isbell’s time in Drive-By Truckers, that proved to be highlights of the show.
All of the musicians on stage Saturday were on top of their game. The solos traded by Isbell, fiddle player Amanda Shires, and guitar player Sadler Vaden were fantastic. The parts provided by the latter two, as well as keyboard and accordion player Derry deBorja, seemed to perfectly accent each song, be it haunting Southern rock, a tender ballad, joyful rollicking country, or the tragic storytelling that Isbell does so well. Bassist Jimbo Hart and drummer Chad Gamble proved a formidable rhythm section, providing thunderous backing to already powerful songs like “Go It Alone” and “Never Gonna Change.” When they would cut out for a song, like on the cancer-tale “Elephant,” their absence was notable, but gave the lyrics more weight.
Much of the second half of Isbell’s show was dedicated to material from “Southeastern.” Eleven of the album’s twelve songs made their way into the twenty-song set and none seemed to dip in energy or quality. Its opening track, “Cover Me Up,” proved to be one of the night’s standout performances.
“Lots of guys have asked me to sing this to their girlfriends for them, but I wrote this for my wife so I’m going to sing it to her,” he said as he turned to face Shires. While the song is beautiful on record, the way Isbell’s voice filled the room, aided by the incredible acoustics of the Beacon Theatre, had much of the audience stunned. They cheered for him when he sang “I sobered up, I swore off that stuff/Forever this time” and whoops and hollers sounded each time his voice rose to the top of its range. The song’s ending was greeted by thunderous applause and a massive standing ovation from the crowd that seemed to leave Isbell humbled.
His set closed with a double-hitter of Drive-By Trucker’s tunes. “Never Gonna Change” saw him and his band deliver fiery solos one after another and earned another standing ovation, while “Danko/Manuel” gave the band room to jam and bring the song into territory that neared psychedelic.
For the encore, Isbell returned to the stage with Shires to perform a spare, acoustic cover of Warren Zevon’s “Mutineer” before being joined by the rest of the band for the loud country-rocking “Super 8.” Isbell promised to return New York soon with new material. He and the band plan to get to work on a new album following this tour.
Carter G. Shelter is a contributing writer. Email him at email@example.com