In the modern era, albums are irrelevant, right? It’s easy to think so, but the success of Sturgell Simpson and Jason Isbell argues otherwise. This concert was a logical pairing, the Americana/alt-country breakout star of 2014 opening for the Americana/alt-country breakout star of 2013, in a most unusual place – one of the largest casino facilities in the United States. Located on the Oklahoma/Texas border, the WinStar casino takes advantage of there being no legal gambling in Texas and pulls equally from Oklahoma City and the Dallas/Fort Worth area, being approximately 90 minutes from both. To my genuine surprise, the 5,200 capacity “Global Events Center” was almost sold out for this gig. Most likely about 90% of the audience was there because of both men’s most recent albums.
I had not completely bought into Sturgill Simpson before seeing him live and feel more ambivalent toward him now. The Kentucky native’s calling card is making music in the retro/classic country tradition with a vocal sound that strongly emulates Waylon Jennings. His setup was basic – a rhythm section, lead guitarist, and Sturgill performed acoustic. The band played shuffles (a lot of them), country ballads, bluegrass numbers, and gospel in a set that went over well with the audience, and Simpson is a solid songwriter in his chosen genre. The problem that I can’t overcome is that he is so dedicated to his vocal affectations, his lyrics become difficult to discern and it seems like a manufactured pretense. After the set, the woman next to me commented, “The sound was so horrible I couldn’t understand anything he was singing.” The sound was actually perfect. Simpson is working in a lyric driven genre, yet is more obsessed with being bathed in “look at me, I’m the real deal” theatrics, that it negates the quality of his work.
Jason Isbell wants you to hear every word of his performance and they all came through with precision and passion. The last time I saw Isbell, he was opening for Todd Snider in the small room of The House of Blues in Dallas, performing an acoustic set with Amada Shires. It was October of 2012 and his post Drive-By Truckers career was in a significant rut. Isbell simultaneously kicked the bottle and found the love of his life, inspiring his career album, Southeastern. Released in the summer of 2013, Isbell has been touring to support it for his newfound fanbase ever since.
His band is locked into this material, having been playing the same set of songs for over 18 months, and never misses a note. When I saw Driven’ N’ Cryin’ a few years back, I was dazzled by the guitar exploits of Sadler Vaden. Vaden doesn’t demonstrate the full range of his talents as Isbell’s guitar player, he doesn’t step on his boss’s toes, but he and Isbell are a potent guitar combination, best displayed on their closing number, their cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” However, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s backtrack.
Jason Isbell fills a weird niche in that he’s a guy who obviously loves rock ‘n’ roll, but his tenor voice is made for heart wrenching ballads, not authoritative bombast. While the Drive-By Truckers specialized in loud, messy rock music, the forte of Isbell’s band is clarity. At times, it comes of as almost being too tasteful, too restrained. However, as a songwriter, his best work of the past dozen years doesn’t just rate favorably with contemporary artists, it is as good as anyone in the singer/songwriter tradition has ever been. (Well, anyone that isn’t named Bob Dylan). If you’re missing the lyrics with Isbell, you’re missing the entire point of his music.
This was a somewhat abbreviated headline set – a dozen songs, no encore, approximately an hour and ten minutes. Besides the Stones cover, he did two of his best songs from his Drive-By Truckers days, the generational family feud/violence tale “Decoration Day” and the reflected parental advice of “Outfit,” and two pre-Southeastern solo tunes, “Alabama Pines” and “Codeine.” It was a selection of songs that reflected the realties that his current audience was built on the Southeastern album and also that his previous solo work was pretty dodgy.
After opening with “Stockholm,” he frontloaded the show with some of his best rockers, “Flying over Water,” “Decoration Day,” and “Super 8.” (The duel guitar jam to end “Decoration Day” was a particularly fine moment). Most of the band left the stage for “Elephant,” Isbell’s heart breaker about watching a loved one wither away from cancer. The composition is Isbell at this best – the sly colloquialisms that aren’t too cute, the empathy for the person whose long, painful death he witnesses, his attempts to comfort the woman with both parties trying to avoid discussion of the tragic, unavoidable outcome. This song almost always reduces me to tears and Isbell’s live performance is just as effective as the recording.
The other centerpiece of the evening was the lead track from Southeastern, “Cover Me Up.” This is Isbell’s song that he wrote for Amanda Shires and it was much more powerful in the live setting than on the record. In “Cover Me Up,” Isbell comes to term with his personal failures and also finds his future in the woman that he loves. This is music as absolution, as hope, and as an emotional release. He sang it like a man that was purging his soul onstage. It was one of the moving performances I’ve seen in years.
I don’t know what a happily married Jason Isbell will mean in terms of his future art, but I know I’ll be first in line to check out the results. To borrow a phrase from Van Morrison, Isbell is a working man in his prime right now. It’s nice to see one of the good guys win.
Grades: Sturgill Simpson, B. Jason Isbell, A.
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