Tuesday, March 7, 2023

CD Odyssey Disc 1625: Jason Isbell

For this next review I did not roll randomly. This is because I was going to see this artist live and I like to match up a recent album release with a live show wherever I can. In this case, the most recent album dates all the way back to 2020, but that’s the last time they released a studio album, so little choice there.

Anyway, if you like this artist, and want to read about their live show just scroll to the end of the review and you’ll find it there. Or better yet, read the review first. Presumably that is why you came here in the first place.

Disc 1625 is…Reunions

Artist: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Year of Release: 2020

What’s up with the Cover?  A very small Jason Isbell on a very stark and featureless plain. This album was released the same year as Anna Tivel’s “The Question” (see review at Disc 1408 for the cover art), which leaves me to believe stark grey expanses featuring tiny human figures were all the rage three years ago.

I assume what with that whole pandemic thing going on, depictions of social distancing were a natural choice for an album’s cover art.

How I Came To Know It: I am a big Jason Isbell fan, so this was me buying his new album and hoping for the best.

How It Stacks Up: Turns out this wasn’t the best. I have five Jason Isbell albums and Reunions comes in at #5.

Rating: 3 stars (hey, it is still good).

“Reunions” did not get off on the right foot with me, but it steadily improves across its tastefully restrained 10 tracks. By the end, I was content and glad to have yet another fine collection of Jason Isbell classics in the collection.

The initial problem felt like a friendly musical argument. Jason clearly felt that “What’ve I Done To Help” and “Dreamsicle” were the songs to catch the listener’s attention. Both did so in different ways, but in neither case was it a good thing.

What’ve I Done To Help” is an intriguing mood piece, and it showcases Isbell’s light and airy vocal style to good effect, so no complaints there. My problem with this track is it slowly adds more and more production into the tune, eventually decaying into the wail of an electric guitar that drifts around in the middle of the mix. That and it’s six-plus minute length makes it feel like it is trying too hard to be artsy.

Dreamsicle” is a pretty enough song, and I love the sound of Isbell’s guitar strum. It also has his oft-employed song structure of three internal rhymes followed by an effortless country hook to hang all the awesome off. My main gripe here was the chorus, which has a melody that connects awkwardly to the verses. “Dreamsicle” is also an odd image. Is this supposed to evoke something between old summer memory and a frozen ice cream treat? Maybe the loss of innocence as felt through old memories? If so I get it but that doesn’t mean it inspired me.

I am happy to advise that despite the false start, the album quickly gains momentum, with quality Jason Isbell singing and songwriting.

There is plenty to recommend from the mid-point onward, starting with the Drive-By-Trucker style rocker, “Overseas”. Isbell is a natural storyteller, capturing theme, mood and dramatic tension all through a few images, chosen with care and arranged in just the right order. The song starts with this emotional latticework of visuals:

“This used to be a ghost town
But even the ghosts got out
And the sound of the highway died
There's ashes in the swimming pool
But I saw you on your wedding night
And I watched you sleeping in my arms
You didn't wash your make-up off
And you woke up looking scared as hell”

Great stuff and on the chorus he even lets that famous guitar playing growl a little to remind you he’s mostly country, but he’s also more than a little rock and roll.

Another standout on the record is “It Gets Easier”. Playing off the old “easy does it” from AA, this song clarifies that there isn’t anything easy about it. Isbell often explores his journey and I hope he keeps doing so if it keeps bringing out such great songwriting.

This record grew on me with repeat listens. I could have lived without the first two tracks but after that I was all in, and enjoyed the rest of the journey right down the line.

Best tracks: Overseas, St. Peter’s Autograph, It Gets Easier, Letting You Go

The Concert: March 7, 2020, Royal Theatre ,Victoria BC

For the second straight show at the Royal, Sheila and I treated ourselves to “loge” seats. For those of you who don’t know, “loge” are those fancy box seats hanging off the side of the wall in old-timey concert halls. It’s where you can imagine royals or famous people sitting, or if you are a fan of the Muppet Show, the place from which Statler and Waldorf heckle Fozzie Bear.

Sheila and I did not heckle the show – we just like being in a spot where people can’t kick the back of your seat and there’s plenty of legroom. Also, it is a great perch for people watching.

Kathleen Edwards

The opening act was Kathleen Edwards. Edwards is a good thematic match to Isbell’s style, occupying that same space somewhere midway between country and rock, with a healthy helping of whatever “indie” means these days.

She was definitely a better match to Isbell’s vibe than when we saw him in Portland in 2017. Then he was matched with Frank Turner and while I’m a huge Frank Turner fan, the energy of the two acts make for a weird alignment. For more on that show, go read my review at Disc 1050.

Back briefly to Kathleen Edwards, who had taken a long break from music before returning in 2020. You could see she was glad to be back and recharged after a time away. She had a good energy and despite the limited set available to all openers, did a good job of mixing in the stuff the longtime fans wanted to hear with some modern material.

Overall I liked Edwards, although there were a couple of tracks where she and the band took off down a path of experimental noodle that bordered on the self-indulgent. Also, the sound guy needed to tone down the volume, as the natural acoustics of the Royal can easily overheat the mix if you aren’t careful.

Jason Isbell

When Jason Isbell took the stage the crowd was thunderous with enthusiasm, and I could tell immediately it was going to be a good show. Isbell seemed to sense it as well, waving with a disarming smile before getting into his usual schtick of standing still, and swapping guitars a lot.

Isbell has a lot of guitars, and dude can play. Through the course of the evening he showed off his country strumming, his rock and roll mastery, a bit of soul and everything in between. The highlight was him and fellow guitarist Sadler Vaden (yes, that’s his name) doing a bluegrass-infused version of “Tour of Duty”. Watching two masters play off one another and effortlessly trade solos without ever stepping on each other was a true treat.

In terms of setlist there was a good mix of the three corners of any good show: new tunes, old favourites, and a couple deep cuts.

The new tracks sadly featured those two songs I mentioned above, but I think he may have cut the noodle elements of “What’ve I Done To Help” short. If not, it felt tighter and more focused so, kudos.

Lots of crowd pleasers were to be had, including rocked out versions of “24 Frames” and “Something More Than Free” which were the songs that helped me discover Isbell years ago and remain favourites. I’m sick of hearing “Super 8” but at least he still plays it with gusto.

Isbell ended the main set with “Cover Me Up” which is touching and undertsated love song, and one that had a perfect mix for the room. As I noted in the Kathleen Edwards piece above, the Royal’s sound can get a bit overheated but they nailed it on the softer tunes, and none better than “Cover Me Up”.

Deep cut wise, I enjoyed Isbell pulling out “Goddamn Lonely Love” from his Drive-By Trucker days. If I were to quibble I’d note my disappointment that Isbell didn’t play “Speed Trap Town” which is one of my all-time favourites. He’d played it live in 2017 so I held out hope, but what the hell – you gotta change up the setlist, so no judgments.

The band wisely ended the show with the tear-jerking masterpiece that is “If We Were Vampires” which likely had couples around the room sharing tear-stained embraces as they thought about how damn lucky we are to find that special someone. I assume it was happening in the cheap seats – it was definitely happening in the loge.

As for the crowd, it was terrific. A mix of everyone from their mid-twenties to their mid-fifties with plenty of whoops and cheers, all placed at the right time to add to the ambience, and not interrupt the tunes. Even the two dudes sitting in front of me didn’t shift around too much, affording me an uninterrupted view of the stage throughout the night.

Finally, a quick note on the merch table. I have high standards for a merch table. It should have stickers, and it damn well better have more than one style of t-shirt in a medium. Isbell had all of that and trucker hats to boot. A-.

All around a pretty great show, and one that will have me hoping Isbell returns to Victoria soon.

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