Saturday, March 30, 2024

Breakdown & breakthrough on Good Friday at the Jason show

This spring of 2024 marks ten years since I first listened to Southeastern by Jason Isbell. As with many of my favorite artists, I was first prompted to listen by reading an excellent review of real music journalism, in a print publication, at that. Rock writers first led me to U2 when I was 16 and My Morning Jacket when I was 37. 

I chased my first Jason show in western Michigan a few months later, hot with grief after the passing of my father. I was transformed, and I have been digesting Jason albums as soul and mind medicine and chasing Jason shows as perfect selfcare ever since.

An honestly crafted Jason Isbell narrative draped in shimmers of sound has the power to unravel complacency and transport me to places of desperation and hope. Other artists do this too, but it takes a certain dedication of repeated listens and an immersion in regular shows to find one who will take you “there” with such piercing consistency. 

As a thoroughly deconstructed and voluntarily defrocked former member of the professional Christian prayer trade, it seems fitting that I am chasing a Jason show on a Good Friday, a day that a few years ago would have surely been spent in prayer and at church. The Atlanta venue that we are driving to tonight to see another Jason show (#32) is called the Tabernacle. 

When the news of Jason and Amanda splitting hit the fan communities, the persistent pitter-pat of parasocial speculation sent splinters into the fan community, Facebook post after Facebook post, nobody able to tell the difference between a breakdown and a breakthrough. One of the fan groups was “paused” and has yet to reboot, perhaps gone forever. 

I told myself silently, that I wouldn’t mind if staple songs such as “Cover Me Up” and “If We Were Vampires” took a break from the nightly setlist, such that I believe their associations with the Isbell-Shires marriage were undeniable. Couldn’t all that mixed feeling be rough for us to hear, even rougher for him to sing? But the songs stay in the live sets, and the story goes, they are our songs now. 

Southeastern songs anchor any live Isbell show, especially now, around its 10th anniversary, just as much as the recent Weathervanes tracks do, and for some reason I was worried about this. Won’t they land on my heart just plain weird? I’d be happy to hear more from Something More Than Free or The Nashville Sound, to say nothing of Reunions, which isn’t currently getting that much love. 

But to my surprise, at my first Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit show of 2024, on Good Friday at the Tabernacle in Atlanta, with as many as five Southeastern songs in the setlist, they all hit hard, but not in an awkward way. They hit hard, with a goosebump- ugly-cry of an emotional wallop, songs like “Stockholm,” “Flying Over Water,” and “Traveling Alone.” These songs moved me as powerfully now, as when I first heard them ten years ago and as powerfully as when I got to hear the entirety of Southeastern live, twice during the Ryman residency of fall 2023. 

A deeper cut from Something More Than Free, “Speed Trap Town” snuck into the Good Friday setlist and disassembled my soul with searing sad poetry, allowing me to feel the song in my depths, different than ever before. Tonight it hit me wobbly on my feet, same as “Cast Iron Skillet.” While there’s no need to place a literary tag on this kind of songwriting, but it seems to me that Jason and crew have mastered a truly “southern gothic” aesthetic, to borrow a phrase, in his lyrics as well as in the band’s overall sonics.

As much as the sadder softer numbers always move me the most at a Jason show, sturdy rockers like “King of Oklahoma” and “Super 8” open up an opportunity for the rest of the band to send us into orbit, not just with Sadler Vaden getting into some kind of rock god theatrics with Jason, but for the entire experience with the Unit to coalesce into full-arc face-melting.  Nowhere is this rocking rock more flipping rock than on “Miles,” with its full-on flirtation with a proggier, jammier side, with Will Johnson hitting the gong, included.  

Jason has always knit choice cover songs into the set, even when it’s at the expense of hearing less from his formidable catalog. For example, this show was one without any Jason oldies or Drive By Truckers standards. But two newer covers to the Jason repertoire that have been slipped into the sets recently are “When I Paint My Masterpiece” by Bob Dylan and “Just Like Heaven” by the Cure. Both showed up on Friday and were simply outstanding, especially the Cure track, if just for the reason that I really didn’t see it coming (even after the debut the night before) nor have any real internal referent for how epic it would be. Simply sparkly and swept us off our feet. 

With an already ambitious show agenda for spring and summer, I resisted adding Saturday night tickets as a last minute adjustment. Right now our next Jason is out west with Adeem opening, come summer, with lots of other great artists in between. 

All said, the depth of my gratitude for this music and this band just grow deeper. It’s amazing to just be alive at the same time as them and to have the privilege to repeatedly immerse my life in their musical mysteries. 

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
Good Friday 2024 - ATL, the Tabernacle
Wichita Lineman walkout at 915pm

Hope The High Road (Nashville Sound)
24 Frames (Something More Than Free)
Save The World (Weathervanes)
King of Oklahoma (Weathervanes)
Traveling Alone (Southeastern)
When I Paint My Masterpiece (Bob Dylan cover) 
Super 8 (Southeastern)
Cast Iron Skillet (Weathervanes)
Stockholm (Southeastern)
Flying Over Water (Southeastern)
If You insist (Weathervanes)
Overseas (Reunions)
Strawberry Woman (Weathervanes)
Speed Trap Town (Something More Than Free)
Death Wish (Weathervanes)
Miles (Weathervanes)
Cover (Southeastern)

Just Like Heaven (Cure Cover)
Vampires (Nashville Sound)
offstage at 11pm

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