On December 7th, 2012 I went to see Jason Isbell at the Bowery Ballroom in NYC. It was my first and only time seeing Isbell and my first and only time being in the venue and I can report good things about both.
The Bowery Ballroom exudes exactly what it suggests; a small, old ballroom complete with a proper stage, a balcony and a healthy dose of pomp and circumstance that clearly expired many years ago; a formerly classy bowery theatre that got loose and grimy.
Jason Isbell is a former member of the excellent Drive-By Truckers, a loose and grimy outfit themselves, and while I have a very healthy appreciation for the Southern alt-rockers Jason Isbell’s solo career had somehow completely eluded me. I didn’t even know what he looked like.
It turns out he looks pretty good and he sounds even better. Isbell is a songwriter’s songwriter. He crafts stories and melodies so deceptively simple and yet so magnetic. Once he draws you into one of his four-minute epics it becomes a deer-in-the-headlights sort of thing. He has the audience hanging on every word, whether he’s singing songs or merely casting engaging tales in his road-tested between-song banter. Indeed, one of the highlights of the show was his story about how he came to call this tour the “Quit F***ing Around And Play Outfit Tour,” before playing the song Outfit, a Drive-By Truckers favourite (according to the story he told) and a song I had not heard before. I can see why people scream for it every night; Outfit is one of those magical ‘home run’ sort of songs. Right away you can tell it’s special and once it gets going it just keeps getting better and better until wham! it’s out of the park and the songwriter gets to take an easy trot around the bases, soaking up accolades at every turn.
It must have been an exciting song to write. I bet it felt like midwifing a rainbow-hued unicorn.
After a great show top-to-bottom I picked up both a t-shirt and a record from the merch area and started waiting for my next chance to see Jason Isbell. However, like a true southern lad he doesn’t stray too far from his home in the Muscle Shoals area and while Isbell rightly has accolades and awards rain down on him from industry and peer groups alike he still somehow flies well under the rockstar radar, so he doesn’t get up here to northern North America too often.
And still I wait.