Jason Isbell – Live at Red Clay Theatre

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When I first saw Jason Isbell (Nov. 27th, 2004), he stepped onto the stage to join the North Mississippi AllStars who were opening for his then-band, Drive-by Truckers.  Whatever I expected, he wasn’t it, certainly not the (southern) rock star stereotype.  He may have been wearing a John Deere baseball hat, skipped any guitar hero poses, and traded solo licks with NMA’s Luther Dickinson.  Good stuff, with plenty more to come later that night.

Skipping forward six years, I caught him with his band, The 400 Unit, at Smith’s Olde Bar, performing an acoustic set.  A rocking acoustic set.  Mighty fin stuff, with musical variety without blowing away all the subtleties that happens when amps are cranked.   Last summer, I heard him at Bele Chere, electric this time... amps cranked, and that’s fine for rock and roll.

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And now, solo acoustic, at a sold-out show at the Red Clay Theatre in Duluth, GA.  The local irony is that having played the previous night at Eddie’s Attic, Eddie Owen, who is no longer associated with the almost legendary venue, is promoting shows at this location.  And here’s Eddie, greeting the audience warmly, building his latest project.

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The Red Clay Theatre, my friends attending would agree, was an awesome venue.  Without about 250 seats, vocals and guitar were astonishingly clear.  Drinks are sold at reasonable prices, but those attending understand that it’s a listening experience rather than a venue for raising hell or, worse, chit chat.

That was reserved for Isbell, who introduced many of the songs, often with humor.  A rough quote: “The next is off an album I did about a year ago.  It’s nice to not have pressure to put out an album every year.  I have the time to make sure that I like every song, rather than release an album that lots of skip-worthy songs.”  Maybe you have to know the context, but that’s funny stuff, no less than his great-uncle’s successful murder defense of “He needed killing” to introduce “Decoration Day.”  Or, there were the frequent comments regarding how dark his songs were, but that he was really a very happy guy.  But “when you’re happy, you want to go play on a trampoline.  Or ride a Sea-doo.  You don’t want to sit around on a piano and write songs.”

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And this particular evening, he played plenty of songs. No guitar changes.  No effects pedals.  No jug of whiskey.  Not even a cigarette. 

Those songs included quite a bit from his more recent CD, Here We Rest.  “Alabama Pines,” “Go It Alone,” “We’ve Met,” “Codeine,” “Daisy Mae” and, I think, “Tour of Duty.”  It should be noted that after hearing these songs, each sounds significantly better than they do on the CD, where his vocals are swamped in the mix and a bit lower. 

DBT fans were very happy with “Danko/Manuel,” “Goddamn Lonely Love,” “Decoration Day” and the sterling “Outfit.”  Other songs included “TVA,” “Cigarettes and Wine,” “Dress Blues,” “In a Razor Town,” The Magician” and covers of James McMurtry’s “Rachael’s Song,” and Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty.”

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Unsurprisingly, Isbell’s talents as both a lyricist and guitar player were highlighted.  While perhaps he will never escape comparisons with his prior band, it’s clear that Isbell writes to a more honest reflection of himself, life, relationships and the South than his former band mates, who tend to push towards zinger clichés and iconic anythings to deconstruct.  Both have their place, but Isbell is grounded.

His guitar playing was superb, taking the available moments to add character and flourishes far beyond easier paths of chords and strums.  This was a fine performance and displayed Isbell at his best.   Now, if he can only figure out how to record with his band...

4 of 5 STARS

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