Jason Isbell is my favorite, and his new album will be amazing – a live review from Delfest

I attended my first multi-day music festival last month, and it was amazing. I spent three nights camping alone at Delfest, mostly a bluegrass festival but with some rock and Americana thrown in, on the West Virginia / Maryland state line. It was all I had hoped it would be. I went for Jason Isbell and the Steep Canyon Rangers; I stayed for Nora Jane Struthers, the Seldom Scene, Old Crow Medicine Show, and so many more.

While life is life and laziness is laziness, it’s very important to me to bring this blog back, whether all at once or slowly over time. Though it’s a few weeks late, I’d like to start with Isbell’s set at Delfest on May 23. He had the 8 p.m. set, so while not quite a headliner, he did have the first set of the night where only the main stage was open, and played as the sky went from full blue to full back.

EmpsallIsbellHe was amazing. If you don’t know Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, you HAVE to listen to Southeastern NOW, and then Live from Alabama. Southeastern is certainly one of my ten favorite albums (its depth and personal messages came out at just the right time for me), and after hearing him live, Isbell graduates from one of my ten favorite artists to one of my three (with George Strait and Bruce Springsteen). He’s certainly the best working songwriter today; the Townes Van Zandt of our generation. I won’t go into too much detail since this is a concert review, not an album review. But I do want to highlight three very special moments. If you’re interested, you can find the full setlist here (there was a decent amount of DBT material).

  • “Cover Me Up” – It shouldn’t have been such a surprise to me that the song that won Song of the Year at the 2014 Americana Music Awards came off this deep and amazing live. While I know Isbell hates his own voice, there was just something about the way he belted out the chorus and hit the highest notes. Even without Amanda Shires there, his then-girlfriend now-wife and sometimes-band-member who pushed him into rehab and for whom he wrote this soulful song, it was still heartfelt, personal, and deep. I was spellbound. I couldn’t even clap at first, despite the loud and powerful energy. I’ve rarely felt this way during a show, but man, that was a performance and that was a SONG. I almost wanted to shush everyone I could hear talking – how could they not feel the power? Until that moment, I’d been a cowboy-hatted, Isbell-shirt-wearing fool screaming his head off, but this shut me up. Wow. Wow. Wow.

So girl, leave your boots by the bed, we ain’t leavin’ this room
‘Til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom
It’s cold in this house and I ain’t goin’ out to chop wood
So cover me up and know you’re enough to use me for good

  • “Speed Trap Town” – While the only “single” Isbell has put out for next month’s new album, “Something More Than Free,” is the ’90s-indie-esque “24 Frames” (which I didn’t like at first but grows on me every time I hear it), he played two other new songs from the project – “The Life You Choose” and “Speed Trap Town.” Isbell has said he thinks the album will be even better than “Southeastern,” which is a tall order, but after hearing Speed Trap Town, I believe it. I can’t find any clips online yet unfortunately, but wow. What a Southern blend of revering one’s daddy yet hating his ignorant influence, and of loving your hometown because it’s in your blood and it’s who you are but also desperately wanting to leave because it offers nothing. It captures the dualism of life we all feel quite well. The song, while not autobiographical (that would be “Outfit”), was personal and Southern and deep and amazing, and it makes me so excited for the new album. The other new track, “Something More than Free,” was also phenomenal. (“But I thank God for the work, I thank God for the work.”
  • “Super 8” – The final song of the set, and WOW. I had until that point really been hoping for my favorite Isbell tunes – “Traveling Alone’ or even the unlikely “TVA” – but after that booming performance of Super 8, I couldn’t have cared less. It was raucous, it was long, it was energetic, it was perfect. It’s performances like that that mean it’s not enough to appreciate Isbell as a songwriter through his albums and interviews; you also have to see him live.

I’ll be out of town for his upcoming DC-area show at Merriweather Post Pavilion and won’t have moved to New Haven in time for his show there, but I just might have to roadtrip to Philly to see him there next month. I can’t say enough about Jason Isbell. If I can only introduce friends and readers to one “new” act, this has to be it. Like I said, he’s our Townes, but also with two important Southern touches – big guitars and sweet tea to sip while you rest – to go along with the powerful, personal, very-real lyrics.

One comment

  1. Enjoyed reading this! Glad you attended Delfest, I’m surprised that is your first camp out festy,, it makes me want to go to one. Though we are busy as a band concentrating on Robert’s stroke recovery, our new head guy Dan Rilko and his wife Suzie enjoy the Festivals any chance they get. Their son and daughter in law are Lyndsay Lou and The Flatbellys.

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