Review: Jason Isbell At Murat Theatre

Following a dazzling Saturday-night performance in front of a sold-out Old National Centre crowd, Jason Isbell kindly asked fans to hold back in the lobby so he and his bandmates could “haul ass” to New York to make it in time for Sunday night’s Grammy appearance.

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There’s a moment in Jason Isbell shows that comes during the second verse of “Cover Me Up,” a vivid love letter that’s also the sound of a guy falling to the floor and smashing into pieces. Isbell sings of some definitively indefensible booze-fueled infraction, and midway through it the crowd starts cheering, and this pre-emptive cheer builds on itself and builds some more, and by the time Isbell gets to the payoff line about sobering up and swearing off liquor “forever this time,” this cheer sounds like a wave, an instinctive release of support, and understanding, and either the memory of or wish for committing to the kind of all-or-nothing change required to reclaim a life. It’s an incredible few seconds of direct nerve-to-nerve contact, not to a band or a singer, but to a human being at the front of the room. And even if you’ve seen Isbell’s four Indy-market shows in the past three-and-a-half years, it still wields the power to remind you of his gifts as a writer while also, at the same time, taking your hair and physically blowing it toward the back of your head. Actual, 100 percent physically. I am pretty sure that after “Cover Me Up,” I spent the rest of the night looking like Doctor Who.

Isbell’s relentlessly consistent shows—which can be properly claimed by neither rock nor country—are basically buffets of this sort of thing: short bursts of peace, longer bursts of battle, lyrics that sidle up and punch you in the face (“You’ve got your past on your breath, my friend”) and flickering scenes, shaded by little Southern details, of the incredible messes that can be achieved by properly motivated humans. There are doomed loves and hope-restoring daughters, burned-in prejudices and reignited faiths, an accordion, and a very dance-able song about narcotics. And on Saturday night at the Murat Theatre, Indiana proved through a sold-out crowd and all-but-absent resale market that it is here for all of it.

It helps that, objectively speaking, he’s on the kind of run for which songwriters would sell their boots, tour buses, and/or souls: Isbell’s last three records are 2013’s sterling Southeastern, 2015’s graceful Something More Than Free, and last summer’s The Nashville Sound. The latter found Isbell many years sober, happily married (to the missed Amanda Shires, whom he joked was already hitting up Grammy parties with Rihanna) and the goofily proud new father of a baby girl, all wonderful things that appear in country-rock songs approximately 15,000 percent less often than their opposites. Yet Nashville uses them as the foundation for higher aspirations: On Saturday night, he delivered its gut-punching love-and-mortality songs (“If We Were Vampires,” Saturday night’s set closer), exhaust-smelling rockers (“Cumberland Gap,” which reaches directly back to the Drive-By Truckers history), defiantly progressive lines in the sand (“White Man’s World”), and opener “Hope the High Road,” as aggressively hopeful a sentiment as you’ll find in Isbell’s catalog, yet one bolted down by hard practicality and the knowledge that faith’s reward is not guaranteed.

Isbell closed out his set on Saturday by politely asking the crowd (and the Walk the Moon folks upstairs, probably) if we wouldn’t mind dawdling in the lobby for a minute, as he and his band needed to get on the bus and haul ass to New York for their mid-Sunday Grammy engagements — with good cause, as he bagged deserved gold for Best Americana Album for The Nashville Sound and Best American Roots Song for “Vampires.” (In so doing, he joined Levon Helm as the only artist to win Best Americana Album twice.) If you’re scoring at home, that means he’s filed under rock, country, roots, and Americana, which sure, fine, awards are great. He’s whatever it’s called when you tell ageless tales with modern angles, deliver lyrics like “I’ll meet you up here on the road” and make them sound like the only possible course to comprehensive spiritual redemption, tell old stories with a bucket of new paint. He’s as bulletproof as concerts get.

Setlist:
“Hope the High Road”
“24 Frames”
“Something More Than Free”
“Decoration Day”
“White Man’s World”
“Last of My Kind”
“Alabama Pines”
“Cumberland Gap”
“Tupelo”
“Molotov”
“Codeine”
“Chaos and Clothes”
“Stockholm”
“Flying Over Water”
“Cover Me Up”
“If It Takes a Lifetime”
“Never Gonna Change”
“Danko/Manuel”
“If We Were Vampires”

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