Wordsmiths who write subtle songs about unheroic lives of quiet desperation don’t usually become rock and roll heroes. Yet there was Jason Isbell, getting a conquering warrior’s welcome from a sold-out Orpheum Theatre audience in downtown L.A. Sunday night. The downtrodden men in Isbell’s character studies stand in constant danger of losing faith, yet it’s a faith-restoring thing to see just how loudly a full house can react to a set of heartland rock that trades far more in unvarnished realism than romanticism.
For music that’s so steeped in country music and Southern rock, Isbell’s music is sober in all sorts of ways — not just in its seriousness in intent, but literally. He doesn’t have a lot of strictly autobiographical songs, but one of them that is, “Cover Me Up,” has a line that goes, “I sobered up and I swore off that stuff.” This self-referential line about forswearing drunkenness got by far the biggest cheer of the night of any lyric he sang at the Orpheum… proof, maybe, that this was not really a country music crowd after all.
As for whether Isbell is or should be counted as a country artist, thousands of Facebook posts and probably at least a half-dozen dissertations have been devoted to whether the Alabama native has a better claim to the genre than, say, Florida Georgia Line. His formal inclusion in the canon may finally have been settled once and for all earlier this month when Isbell picked up a wholly unexpected CMA Awards nomination for album of the year for his recent release, “The Nashville Sound” (a title laden with both irony and earnestness). There will be a lot more chatter over Isbell’s CMA honor at his six upcoming sold-out shows at Nashville’s Ryman than there was in L.A., where Isbell is regarded more as in the tradition of the quiet side of Bruce Springsteen —more of a proponent of the “Nebraska” sound, if you will.
One of the few things Isbell does have in common with a lot of contemporary country acts is a strong rootedness in Southern rock, though they come at it from different angles. Other artists borrow the party-hearty good spirits of the genre; Isbell borrows the slide guitar. In concert, lots and lots of slide guitar. Isbell never left the tube attached to his mic stand alone for long, nor did his fellow lead guitarist in the 400 Unit, Sadler Vaden, as they alternated short solos throughout the set. It’s easy to see why Isbell favors so much slide guitar: it tends to sound a little sadder, and its inherent fluidity may be a little closer to the melisma of the melancholy human voice. Toward the end of the set, though, both guitarists set aside the tubes and indulged in some actual shredding, individually and together. It’s hard to imagine that anything could give the Southern-rock guitar duel a good name again, but Isbell’s and Vaden’s call and response at the climax of “Never Gonna Change” — the only vaguely jammy portion of the night — was a thing of wonder.
But if Isbell is latently a true guitar hero, he’s always going to be a lyric hero first and foremost. The eight selections from “The Nashville Sound,” along with the 11 tracks from earlier albums, were full of verses that Speak To The Way We Are Now. “White Man’s World” comes closest to the angry and more obviously trenchant approach favored by Isbell’s old band, the Drive-by Truckers. But he took a lighter approach in “Hope the High Road,” singing, “Last year was a son of a bitch for nearly everyone we know/ But I ain’t fighting with you down in the ditch/ I’ll meet you up here on the road.” And, as an aside: “There can’t be more of them than us.” He’s less confrontational than ex-compadre Patterson Hood, and more apt to find occasional victories for his characters, even if, in times of economic and personal depression, a victory is defined as mere survival.
Once in a very rare while, Isbell allows himself the luxury of writing a completely non-fiction, unabashedly personal love song. He saved those for the last portion of his set Sunday, and with good reason. His wife, Amanda Shires, is a full member of the 400 Unit, but she’s taken some dates off recently for her own solo career (which led her to a win for emerging artist of the year at Wednesday’s Americana Honors awards show in Nashville). As the Orpheum show got underway, there was a clear hole in the stage setup where Shires’ microphone and fiddle gear would normally have gone, and you wondered if it was too much trouble just to reconfigure the stage setup without her, or if Isbell really was enough of a romantic to mourn her absence with a visible gap.
Then, almost exactly an hour into the set, Isbell spoke to the audience for practically the first time, introducing “a special guest… who just showed up!” Shires, he explained, had done a noon gig at a festival in Bristol, Virginia, then made it to L.A. in time for the last 45 minutes of the show. Over the last few gigs, he added, they’d almost honed bassist Jimbo Hart’s backing vocals into a perfect approximation of her fiddle sound, “but it was just now I realized how far from perfect it was.” Now, the suddenly banter-prone Isbell explained, he could sing the sensual “Cover Me Up” “for you and to you at the same time.” And now, the encore could end with them together singing the new “If We Were Vampires,” a ballad that proves morbidity and sweetness really do blend.
There was metaphor as well as practical magic in Shires’ sudden introduction into the show: In the band’s sound, as in life, things get just a little less desolate — not entirely un-lonesome, mind you, but less so — when you get a woman into the mix.
Opening act Frank Turner was almost hilariously the opposite of Isbell as a performer. Which is not to say that he and his band, the Sleeping Souls, were a poor choice to open the entire tour. Yes, Turner spoke more between any two songs than Isbell did all night, being as effusive and eager to please as the headliner was poker-faced. And you could see a bit of a split in the audience: Some of the older fans who think of Isbell as in the sedate tradition of the great ’70s singer/songwriter troubadours sat on their hands, while younger fans stood, sang, and laughed along with the garrulous Englishman. It made sense, in the end: You can find a seed of Isbell’s seriousness within Turner’s more effusive songs, and the bleeding rock and roll heart that Turner wears on his sleeve certainly beats underneath, and sometimes revs right up through, Isbell’s introspection. Theirs is a good marriage after all… or almost as good as Isbell’s and Shires’.