has a lengthy catalogue, most of which I'm ashamed to admit, I am not familiar with...yet. I haven't been there since his early days with The Drive-By Truckers. Like a lot of people who filled out the first night of a sold-out, double dip at The Beacon Theater last week, I was initially hooked by Isbell's last record, Southeastern
. Actually, you know what? Scratch that. I got hooked by a short performance of a single song - that would be his gut-punch of a Cancer-ballad, "Elephant" - as well as the story that unfolded throughout an hour long episode of Marc Maron's seminal podcast, WTF
I suppose it's a story that really doesn't need to be retold in detail at this point, except to say that it's got all the ingredients you look for in rock and roll redemption. A young prodigy with the classic rock pedigree boiling in his blood gets an amazing opportunity with The Truckers, marries the wrong woman, fucks up said opportunity, gets thrown out, meets the girl of his dreams, is ordered to get his shit together, actually does get his shit together, becomes an Americana Phenom of sorts, and plays the Beacon Theater in New York City on a Thursday night in February.
It's inspiring...the kind of story that sometimes overtakes the actual music. But this wasn't a gathering interested in hearing a redemption story, unless it's buried in the triumphant declaration of a song like "Cover Me Up" ("But I sobered up and I swore off that stuff forever this time"). They were gathered to hear one of the finest songwriters working today.
A bulk of Thursday's set was ripped from the running order of Southeastern
and his most recent album, Something More Than Free
. It's like he had people like me in mind, and he should. He wasn't playing two nights in a row at the Beacon two years ago. He's gotten here by the creative (and personal) ground he's gained the last few years by putting out two sincere and heartfelt records.
In general, both Southeastern
and Something More Than Free
navigate more rustic, acoustic colored territory. Country folk would be the nice neat designator you could package the albums up in. But there are a couple of sonic exceptions on the record that suggest it would be more than worth your while (and mine, obviously) to go rummaging through the past. "Flying Over Water" and "24 Frames" pack a little more umph. They fly the Southern rock flag proudly...the kind of songs you can picture a beer swiggin', air-guitarin' crowd hollering to their hearts content along to. Which is precisely what was happening in front of me at the Beacon for most of the night.
These two songs serve as signifiers of the past, more in line with Isbell's days with The Truckers and the earlier records he made with his band The 400 Unit (who, I might add, are still his band). Some of the show's best moments came with the amps cranked to 11, as Isbell and the band bulldozed through takes of The Truckers' "Never Gonna Change" and "Decoration Day". And in the great tradition of many-a Southern rock musicians before him, Isbell didn't shy away from the spotlight, stepping into a pool of light at the front of the stage, as a cage of spotlights rained around him. Yes, even a modest, down to earty musician like Isbell can have his epic rock and roll moment.
So, since Thursday I've been diving back into the records I've missed out out...every great show has this immediate effect on me. And while I originally fell for his music and the story he told Maron a couple of years ago, it's the journey his music takes you on over the course of a 90 minute set that's the most interesting story here.