Jason Isbell & Amanda Shires, Live at Brooklyn Bowl, Nashville, Friday, May 15th 2020, Reviewed
“This is like the CD release shows we did before Southeastern came out,” Jason Isbell quipped at Friday night’s release concert for his and his 400 Units band new album Reunion, the band aren’t here for obvious reasons but part of the proceeds go to pay them, the rest goes to Covid-19 sufferers), before his breakthrough could take him back as far as 2009. The empty except for the crew in face masks at Brooklyn Bowl, Nashville, is the latest to attempt to put on a show without an audience, though the decision to reverse the showing experience and put the folks streaming at home on large screens surrounding them gave it something or other… Not enough to save the concert, Reunion isn’t great, but enough to keep you hoping they pull it off.
Isbell misunderstands himself, he thinks he’s Steve Earle becoming a bulwark for the red states, but, in fact, he is the George Harrison of Americana, good for one or two songs per Drive-By Truckers album, then after the fluke breakthrough, still good for one or two songs per album. In 2015 there was “24 Frames,” in 2017 “If We Were Vampires” and right this second both “Be Afraid” and “Letting You Go” and they are ALL SO GREAT you keep on missing how shitty the rest of them all.
Jason forgets as well, and, not unlike Lewis Capaldi, he is inflicted with a towering ego that peeks through the songs and into a world of privilege he can’t shake. Friday night he performed the entire Reunion album, for two thirds of the hour, and added commentary and how the other half live-ness for the other twenty minutes. Whether it be Willie Nelson kissing his wife on the lips, or flying to New York to perform a benefit with Jackson Browne, or telling about David Crosby lighting up a joint with Amanda at a restaurant (a terrible idea to tell that, the 21 year old man for whom Crosby donated his sperm to Melissa Etheridge had just died of a drug overdose), Isbell isn’t all here. Isbell’s awful New York Times interview is overstuffed with self-regard it is creepy and intrusive of his own privacy.
On stage Friday, he and Shire complemented each other, Shire’s fiddling giving a sad undertow whatever the subject matter and Jason stripping his songs to the bones and improving the whole lot making you wonder if Dave Cobb (who produced John Prine’s magnificent The Tree Of Forgiveness) missed the sound. There is an intensity to the two, undercut by nothing, attempts at humor and cool conversation don’t happen and while Amanda looks great in butterfly glasses and leather pants, Jason looks every second of his 41 years of age.
Reunion got an 80% approval rating on Metacritic, but it doesn’t deserve it. The songs are too self important, and while “Be Afraid” is great even that isn’t saved by his arrogant tone as he dresses down his contemporaries. He isn’t in London and he isn’t dressing down Dubya, there is nothing brave in any of this, just a hectoring self-regard from someone who doesn’t have the right to give it.
And yet, considering that I only liked three songs (“Dreamsicle” is the third, minor but not negligible), it wasn’t that bad: the intensity was just single minded enough, when he wishes Patterson Hood and his wife a happy anniversary you can’t help thinking how sweet it is, and if you were not aware of Brooklyn Bowl opening up a new room in Nashville, neither was I and neither were most people, as Jason was the inaugural show with empty Bowling Lanes right next to them just like at Ground Zero. And still he is stymied by his songwriting, “It Gets Easier” is a strong concept, the alcoholic writing about alcoholism is a terrific thought, with a smart lyric but not a terrific song, “What’ve I Done To Help” is bluesy roots and almost as bad live as its position at the opening of the album… look, everything’s there except for the songs and sometimes the lyric. And it should have sinked him. Jason needs a writing partner, he needs to check his ego at the door, but he doesn’t need a better band than the 400 Units or a better violinist than the one he has. With no reason and no way for it to have been a good set, it wasn’t a good set and it wasn’t bad either.