Jason Isbell has been a busy man. His Ohio River Throwdown appearance on Saturday is his 92nd show of 2014, with 18 more to go beyond that. This will be his third show in the Cincinnati area since the Southeastern tour began in June of last year (he headlined last year’s Whispering Beard), in addition to seven more within a couple hours’ drive. Over the next two months, Isbell will perform three sold-out nights at Nashville’s legendary Ryman Auditorium, make an appearance at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre (capacity: 4,678), and play a just-announced New Year’s Eve show at Louisville’s gorgeous Palace Theatre. But this is nothing new, he’s always been busy. During his six year tenure in Drive-By Truckers, the band would regularly plow through nearly 150 dates in a calendar year, and he’s barely left the road since he went solo. It’s just the venues that are getting bigger as people take notice and the hard work pays off.
Sobriety has been the big story surrounding 2013’s excellent album Southeastern. Ryan Adams and songwriter Amanda Shires (now Isbell’s second wife) encouraged him to go to rehab following a tour in early 2012. “I sobered up/And I swore off that stuff/Forever, this time,” he sings in album opener “Cover Me Up,” and he recalls being “damn near strangled by [his] appetite/Ybor City on a Friday night/Couldn’t even stand upright.” But mostly, Southeastern is an intimate affair, concerned not with rehab but with life afterwards. His recovery dictated the disciplined songwriting; it’s the portrait of a brilliant but often inconsistent artist finally finding focus and realizing his full potential.
Isbell has repeatedly proved himself uncannily adept at crafting musical Southern Gothic short stories. “Decoration Day,” the title track of his first record with Drive-By Truckers and still a setlist staple, tells the tale of a family feud as seen by one of the last men standing. Southeastern has two such songs of note—“Live Oak,” which covers a murderous 19th century drifter trying (and failing) to make human connections, and the bonechilling “Yvette,” where a kid sets his rifle sights on his crush’s abusive father. This is how Cormac McCarthy would sound if he entered a recording studio.
But the personal songs cut the deepest—“Danko/Manuel,” “Goddamn Lonely Love,” and “Travelling Alone” all deal with the loneliness of life on the road without delving into classic rock cliché. In 2011’s “Alabama Pines,” the narrator sings from a decrepit hotel room: “The AC hasn’t worked in 20 years, it’s probably never made a single person cold/I can’t say the same for me, I’ve done it many times.” Cancer ballad “Elephant” strikes with a force ten times The Fault In Our Stars--”One thing that’s real clear to me/No one dies with dignity.”
His band shouldn’t be sold short in all this talk of songcraft. Jason’s had the 400 Unit backing him up for over five years, and they’re as fierce an outfit as any touring today. In the course of five minutes they can go from the perfect nuance of “Relatively Easy” to the full roar of “Never Gonna Change.” On a lucky night, Shires will show up on violin and vocals and turn them into a sextet (sadly, she’ll be playing a solo gig in Illinois on Saturday). And with all due respect to John Neff, Isbell was the best lead guitarist the Truckers ever had in their three-axe attack. If anything, he’s gotten better out on his own, and sobriety has undeniably strengthened his voice; compare recent shows to 2012’s Live From Alabama, and you’ll hear the change in a second.
Jason Isbell has walked a long, strange road since he joined Drive-By Truckers mid-tour back in 2001, but he’s come out triumphant--happily married, critically (and now commercially) successful, and, most importantly, healthy. After a year and a half in clubs and sharing bills with Willie Nelson and Ray LaMontagne, this big fall theater run is a victory lap. Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit seriously threaten to steal the show at Riverbend on Saturday. Next time they’re back, they’ll top the bill.
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Ohio River Throwdown at Riverbend Music Center on September 6 w/ Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, Jason Isbell, Trampled By Turtles, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, Lucero, Justin Townes Earle, The Secret Sisters, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Johnnyswim, Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds, American Aquarium, and No BS! Brass Band