Concert Reviews

Jason Isbell Was Something More Than a Country Star at South Side Ballroom

Jason Isbell
South Side Ballroom, Dallas
Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Over the course of the past year, Jason Isbell has been on a wild ride. Along with the release of his much-anticipated follow-up to 2013’s Southeastern, Something More Than Free, Isbell had a baby, toured in support of the record and finally started to receive some of the acclaim he’s earned in his last 10 years in the music business. This past week, that growth all came to a head for Isbell, when he celebrated four years of sobriety just a few days before accepting two Grammy awards.

And last night, just one sleep after music’s biggest night, Isbell was in Dallas to play South Side Ballroom. All those fortuitous happenings may, in some small way, be related to our fair city. “Good shit always happens in Dallas,” he noted, before mentioning that the last time he was in Dallas – for 2015’s inaugural Big City Bash at Gexa Energy Pavilion headlined by Randy Rogers – he learned that Something More Than Free had shot to No. 1 on the rock, country and folk Billboard charts.

On Tuesday, he played Dallas immediately after earning two Grammys. It would appear – and Isbell would agree – that Dallas is a lucky stop for the young troubadour. Isbell opened the set with a vibrant and energetic “Stockholm” that sounded just like it was performed by a winner. Isbell’s exuberance was palpable, whether or not it was related to his big win or the packed house at South Side Ballroom.

Throughout the just-shy-of-two-hour set, Isbell wound through his catalog, playing tunes dating back to his days with Drive-By Truckers like “Decoration Day,” a deeply personal track based on an old family story. Throughout the evening, the mood shifted from rollicking to retrospective on tracks like “Different Days.” Isbell has an uncanny ability to be just as good at a high-energy, rock-driven performance as he is at stripped-down acoustic play.

But it was those acoustic moments, when Isbell joined his wife and fiddle player Amanda Shires for a few songs without the band, that truly showcased his (and her!) impeccable talent as a showman. Together, they played a gorgeous cover of Warren Zevon’s “Mutineer,” with love and admiration and mutual respect for each other practically radiating out into the crowd. It also didn't hurt that gorgeous harmonies and Shires' expert fiddling made this a cover that Zevon himself could've been proud of. 
Isbell credits Shires with saving his life in the throes of his addiction to alcohol, but she’s also an important part of his band. Together, they make incredible music. Shires has her own solo career – one that’s certainly worth paying attention to – but when she and her husband are on the stage together, they create a kind of electricity that platonic bandmates just can’t. It also doesn’t hurt that Isbell respects his wife as more than just a kick-ass human being, one who cared enough to drag him away from the bottle, but also a remarkable musician and an artist in her own right.

Judging by the reaction from the crowd, there were a number of fans who’d just recently become acquainted with Isbell. The crowd sang along most vigorously to the tracks from Something More Than Free, but deeper cuts from Southeastern and previous Isbell releases with his backing band, the 400 Unit, were welcome additions to the set for fans who had been around a little longer.

As always, his performance of "Cover Me Up," a song that he says Shires used as an audition of sorts to decide whether or not to marry him, was a particularly high moment. Every couple in the crowd grabbed their significant other tight, as if this were their own song. To see these two perform this song on the same stage, especially given its incredibly personal subject matter, is a pretty incredible experience – one that elevates this simple and beautiful love ballad into one of the all-time romantic greats. 

Most fascinating, though, was just how genreless Isbell sounded last night. There were moments of country and blues and rock and roots and folk and Americana, each so significant that it’s easy to see why the critics have such a hard time nailing Isbell down into a genre. As much as we might like for Isbell to be country music’s next savior, last night it became overwhelmingly clear that he is much, much more than just a return to traditional country.

In fact, he might just be part of the reason that authentic, traditional country music may very well no longer be called “country music” in the coming years. The subject matter remains the same – the trials and tribulations of the working man – but the sound is entirely different. Influenced by his hometown of Muscle Shoals, Isbell is well on his way to redefining the way that we look at this uniquely American form of music.  Perhaps most important, happiness looks good on Isbell. His newer lyrics may be less raw and painful than those written during his struggle with addiction, but they’re no less good. If anything, it’s beautiful to watch him run the lyrical gamut from “Decoration Day” to “Cover Me Up” to “If It Takes a Lifetime.” In essence, it’s an hour-long encapsulation of Isbell’s growth as a man, a human being and an artist.

Before Isbell took the stage, promising alt-country act Shovels & Rope delivered a killer opening set. On stage, they’ve got an energy that rivals any other touring act in the world of music right now, and this impressive blend of blues, modern country and folk is just impossibly fun. With pulsating rhythms and brilliant lyrics and two uniquely distinctive voices, there’s no doubt that we’ll be hearing from this bright young band in the future. And if that’s what the future of country music sounds like, things are going to get a whole lot better.

And that, ultimately, is what last night’s show at South Side Ballroom felt like: hopeful. Isbell’s own hope for his future was infectious, a profound happiness drawn from his family and his music and his sobriety that was impossible to ignore. At this point, he’s grown into the artist and performer everyone knew he could be before he hit it big, and that’s a pretty damn exciting thing to watch. 
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Amy McCarthy