In Service of Music Medicine, Jason Isbell Played at the Austin Library Last Night

Songwriter delivers phenomenal solo set for JoyRx fundraiser

Jason Isbell performing at Austin's Central Library for a Children's Cancer Association / JoyRx fundraiser. (Photo courtesy of Joy Rx/Bloom Communications)

Amongst a well-heeled crowd of philanthropists and physicians at the Austin Public Library, I find an open chair and introduce myself to the person sitting next to me. “Are you a donor?” I ask. “No,” she replies. “I’m a palliative care doctor…and also a Jason Isbell fan from Alabama.”

I ask her if she thinks the host and benefiting charity of the night’s proceedings, JoyRx, did critical work. “They do great work,” she says. “Medicine only goes so far – music therapy is important.

The night kicks off with an auction, half the packages being music-focused. A round of golf with the John Daly of Western Swing, Asleep at the Wheel leader Ray Benson, went for $5,000. All 50 two-ticket packages to a private, local Band of Horses performance sell out at $500 a pop. A Gibson Les Paul, signed by Isbell, is bid up into the $5000 range too.

“I played that guitar backstage and that’s a good guitar,” Isbell exclaims later in the night. “They’re heavy though – I don’t know if you’re a Les Paul guy, but get a wiiiiiide strap.”

As if the purchaser was planning on playing gigs with it.

Following the spirited auctions, speakers extol the work of JoyRx and videos show young people – kids dealing with hospitalisations, serious health issues, surgeries, developmental delays, and terrible diseases – having positive and sometimes life-changing musical interactions. One local mother, whose son Julio has trisomy 21, testifies about the inspiring impact of the music program he's in and notes that being able to express himself through choosing songs gives him a rare feeling of control. Danielle York, CEO of the affiliated Children’s Cancer Association, announces that JoyRx, with an already established local presence, has opened an office Downtown.

It’s an unusual lead-in to a performance that doesn’t in any regard feel like a traditional show, including the setting: a brightly lit event space in the newish central library where the stage is backdropped by a conference-like projector screen and the primary visual ambiance is three strings of rope lights. Isbell, dressed in a black-on-black suit and playing a custom Martin acoustic, enters casually and the sound gets dialed-in as he plays “24 Frames.” By the second song, the weary “Traveling Alone” he’s in his bag.

I love seeing esteemed bandleaders play solo. It’s typically revealing of their unvarnished artistic nature – for better or worse. The songwriter, whose name is typically followed by “& the 400 Unit,” is delivering everything you want in that kind of performance, though he admits it feels a bit unfamiliar: “It’s been a while since I played a set all by myself – I do enjoy it, but I forget that if I stop playing… nothing’s happening.

The one-time Drive By Truckers member homes in on the intimate atmosphere of the evening, sharing witty and engaging anecdotes including him admitting to late song-charmer John Prine that he’d ripped off “Hello in There” with “Traveling Alone” – to which Prine replied: “Oh no, no, no – you didn’t rip me off with that song.” Isbell follows it by playing the even more Prine-esque “Last of my Kind.” Equally amusing narratives focusing on his family, lead into performances of “Letting You Go” (about his daughter) and highlight “If We Were Vampires” (intro’d with a tale of his wife, Texas-raised musician Amanda Shires, telling him to stop watching Hoarders and write a song).

Being that it was an appearance at a fundraiser, I expect Isbell to play a handful of tunes, but the Alabama singer/guitarist instead plays what would have amounted to a full festival slot. Without his typically impressive backing band, his guitar dexterity and creativity is on display – envilvening musical breaks on songs like “Only Children” that draw mid-song applause. His voice, transitioning from relaxed to high and cutting on a dime, sounds phenomenal throughout.

Isbell’s superpower, of course, is having one or more tattoo-worthy lyrics in every song, a strength epitomized by closing pair “Speed Trap Town” and “Cover Me Up,” which sets up with the line: “A heart on the run keeps a hand on the gun you can't trust anyone.” Though he sparsely discussed the night’s charity angle, save for saying it’s a great cause, by the set’s end, emotion is high and anyone who listened can plainly feel: music is medicine.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Jason Isbell, Austin Central Library, Joy Rx, Children's Cancer Association

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