On an ordinary night, the shoes that a headliner wore on stage would not be the lede of my review. But, reader, these are not ordinary times. And Jason Isbell is no ordinary performer.
Let’s go in the way, way back machine to Monday, when it was announced that Colin Kaepernick, the former protesting football player, was signed on to Nike’s 30th anniversary of their “Just Do It” campaign. People—mostly conservatives—began to destroy their Nike apparel. Perhaps the most notable, a person on the road crew of pop-country act Big & Rich, as documented on Twitter.
But, you see, Jason Isbell is not Big & Rich-style country, even though he is a child of the south. In fact, it was just a couple weeks ago that he was called a member of the “unhinged left” by the Tennessee GOP for his participation in a Democratic candidate’s fundraiser. And, so it seems relevant that for the first time in all of the times I’ve seen him live, he was wearing sneakers. And even more relevant that they were Nikes, though he did not address the fashion choice at all during his set.
But if you listen—if you really listen—to Isbell’s lyrics, none of this would be a surprise. Isbell is a master of first-person storytelling and his songs have recurring themes: the working class, small town life—or escaping it—and what it means to be a man. Sometimes the latter is on the nose, like when he says in “Hope the High Road”: I used to want to be a real man/
I don’t know what that even means—and sometimes it’s a little more subtle, like the narrator of “Speed Trap Town,” who is buckling under the weight of family obligations in his small town.
In no place is any of it more clear than in “White Man’s World,” which I encourage all of you to read the lyrics to, in full, right now. Of course Jason Isbell wore Nikes!
As for the music—Isbell’s band is tight. It’s not a county band, exactly, especially on the nights that Amanda Shires doesn’t join them onstage. It’s a rock ‘n’ roll setup: Isbell on lead guitar, there’s rhythm, bass, keyboards (sometimes accordion, but not last night) and drums. The most country you’ll get from those instruments is the slide guitar technique that Isbell employs.
But the sound is something else. It’s a contemporary southern rock, more than country or the catch-all “Americana.” And it’s good. It’s really, really good—even during the extended jam sessions that often bore me at live shows.
Isbell’s voice is as good as it’s ever been, as is his guitar playing. He’s clearly a man on the top of his game. He’s come a long way from the pudgy good old boy who played Salt Lake’s The State Room after he left Drive-by-Truckers all those years ago—and he seems to be dragging country music, and its fans, along for the ride.