So far, it’s been Jason Isbell’s year. June LP Southeastern garnered the kind of praise artists would kill for. It’s also led to a major feature in The New York Times, a widely circulated interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, a TV appearance on Letterman, and, on Monday, a debut taping for Austin City Limits.
Oh, and he married a Texan: Lubbock native, fiddler, and singer-songwriter Amanda Shires.
Much of Southeastern, the former Drive-By Trucker’s fourth solo effort, comes across as subdued. Isbell admitted he didn’t want to make another pound-‘em-on-the-head, country-inflected Southern rock album, and some tunes can be traced to a recent rehab stint and its aftermath.
Monday night at the Moody Theater spotlighted plenty of quietly intense moments, but Isbell’s band, the 400 Unit, which now includes Shires, proved they’re still capable of maximum power, opening with ripping versions of two new tunes: “Flying Over Water” and “Go It Alone.”
Throughout, Isbell proved a confident frontman, polishing his Alabama roots as he spoke like a Southern gentleman about his songs. “If these are too heavy for you,” he offered, “just imagine I’m singing about something like ice cream.”
He put in a small dig at the Drive-By Truckers, the band that introduced him to the world, referencing their heavily bearded fans after early showstoppers “Decoration Day” and “Outfit,” DBT songs he wrote. I’ve seen Isbell a few times and don’t recall him ever mentioning DBT onstage before, so that’s progress.
Southeastern peaks with “Elephant,” a song about a friend dying of cancer, and the same held true for the stage show, with Isbell on acoustic guitar, Shires on fiddle, and keyboardist Derry DeBorja managing a devastating musical tiptoe around the elephant in the room. Then it was back to the big rock show with Rolling Stones-ish closer “Super 8.”
The encore started with “Danko/Manuel” from his DBT days, a reminder that Isbell’s always been capable of songs that drive a hard bargain between fist pumps and sad eyes. He closed with “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” an actual Stones’ song that allowed Isbell a much needed guitar workout after his evening of heavy rumination.
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