I went to Cincinnati to see Jason Isbell in concert at the Taft Theatre last night.
It’s worth noting that Isbell has spent the majority of the last year on tour and he’s no doubt played these songs into the ground by now. It can’t be easy living on the bus, even if he gets to do it with his wife (that’s her above, Amanda Shires, playing the fiddle) and baby. Hell, having his baby with him on tour – a baby who made an appearance on stage last night, complete with infant-sized noise-cancelling headphones – probably makes it harder sometimes. Given that and given how many of his songs describe a part of his life that is fading into his past, he’d be excused if he simply strummed his way through his set. Indeed, most of his songs lend themselves to some calm strumming anyway, so who would’ve complained?
He didn’t do that, though. It was an electric performance in every sense of the term. The energy was so high that, musically speaking, I wonder if his next album will sound more like his old Drive-By Truckers’ output than his calmer recent stuff. That might be a lot of fun, actually. Isbell may have reached a new level of fame as the thinking man’s troubadour, but his pedigree as a shitkicker is legit, and maybe it’s time for him to let that loose for an album or two.
Mostly, however, I was taken with Isbell’s own personal electricity. He experienced a physical transformation when he got sober – anyone who has seen pics of him from the bad old days can attest to that – but he was almost shockingly fit and trim on stage last night, wearing a tight cowboy shirt, skinny jeans and boots as he rocketed around the stage. His promotional photos and album covers depict a serious and at times dour man, but he seemed to have a smile plastered on his face all night last night. It grew a tad wider whenever he’d go play closer to his wife.
This electricity and dynamism spoke to me because, in recent months, I’ve recommitted myself to improving both my physical and mental state, honing a set of blades which has gotten a tad dull due to the wear of inertia and routine. I don’t like that I tend to equate fitness and vigor with happiness and mental health, but they are inextricably linked in my own personal experience, so when I see someone who has transformed themselves in the way Isbell has, it serves as something of a personal reinforcement for me. Note to self: go buy a tight cowboy shirt and bounce around a bit.
Ultimately, however, a Jason Isbell show is all about the songs. The songs spoke to me too. They have in the couple of years that I’ve known them but, in recent months, due to some personal circumstances, they’ve come to speak to me more than any artist’s songs ever have. The way in which they speak to me made last night’s show less of a typical concert and more of a celebration of what, at the moment, seems like the success of an often difficult mental and emotional journey I’ve been on for much of the past year.
Isbell’s two most recent albums were in large part motivated by his newfound sobriety, the battles and temporary defeats which led him to it, his settling down with his wife, having a family and stuff like that. Some of his songs are literally about that stuff. Some are more abstract. Some are straight story-songs about entirely different characters experiencing entirely different things.
But most of them are about making peace with oneself and one’s life or, at the very least, trying to. In some instances they’re about rebuilding one’s life on a truly solid foundation rather than depending on inertia or the fictions we tell ourselves or, more often, internalize. They’re about imperfect people doing the best they can in an imperfect world. He doesn’t give anyone false hope – some of his characters seem downright doomed – but there’s nothing that isn’t 100% real and honest in these songs. And, most importantly for my purposes, the way he works through these themes in his songs are far more universal than their literal motivation and have wider application.
I’m not someone who lives through music and ties it to the events in his life to the extent a lot of people do. I’m not a super close-reader for the most part and I don’t rely on music for emotional catharsis like I might’ve done when I was younger. As I’ve written a lot lately, I’ve battled depression, uncertainty and a handful of other issues in recent months and, in doing so, I’ve done my own hard work rather than try to just feel my way through with music or hobbies or other distractions. Like I said above, it’s about building on a strong foundation.
But Isbell’s songs have been something of a lifeline to me all the same. A nice soundtrack and source of inspiration as I’ve done that work. Outside of us both being Atlanta Braves fans, his life and mine have virtually nothing in common, but his songs have helped me contextualize many of the things I’ve been experiencing on an abstract level. I couldn’t be more grateful for them. Seeing them, and him, live last night felt like a significant event. Like the end of a chapter. Or a nice key change.