Live Review

Jason Isbell Rocks his Version of Country in Portsmouth, Honesty in Lyrics Direct & Rare

Jason Isbell on April 26, 2017

Jason Isbell strides center stage guitar afire with lyrics direct and rare at the Portsmouth Pavilion. (Photo by Ron Wray)

Jason Isbell took no prisoners tonight in Portsmouth. The Oreo cake must have done him good that he talked so happily about. He said a number of times about how cool a space it was at the Portsmouth Pavilion, how much he and the band were enjoying themselves, what a great crowd we were. May be. But, he and the band took it on themselves to play the stage like an atom bomb. Isbell has a line about god not being otherwise now than a pipe bomb ready to blow. He took much the same approach to music, but in a good way.

The electric highway and the acoustic path both gave him steady, heavenly passage. Some fast, some not so much slow as building in power, some telling personal stories, most in one way or another a nod to his edging-out of adversity as the central feature of his living, He’s a player, and a singer of magnificent thrust, edging into the stars. Notes round and full. An interactive band, the 400 Unit. A crowd young and old, though the not real young. It was a pleasantly Spring blend of cool and warm breezes at Portsmouth (VA) Pavilion, sitting adjacent to the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

The time was right for a retrospective from Isbell various-and-sundry days of past visits, studies, memories, thrusts, balances, and flights. It was time to tell his story again, share his victories, recount past sins. Truth in the most extreme, he closed dying in a Super 8, then in “life with vampires,” a new one, followed by “Never Gonna Change,” an exaggeration from Drive by Truckers days.

When I was talking recently to JT Nero of Birds of Chicago, he talked about songwriting strategy often being narrative/story as the base of a song, then the chorus coming in with the preponderance of the music and most of the poetry. As  an example in Isbell’s songs that evening:   (1) This is how you make yourself worthy of the love that she gave you back when you didn’t own a beautiful thing. This is how you make yourself call your mother  - This being the factual basis, foundational narrative. And (2) This is how you see yourself floating on the ceiling/And this is how you help her when her heart stops beating/What happened to the party you woulda noticed every changing word/And this is how you talk to her when no one else’s listening/And this is how you help her when the muse goes missing./You vanish so she can go drowning in a dream ago – This, then, being the chorus – the poetry and the musical core.

Jason Isbell rocks the stage. His band pulsates backwards and forwards.  The guys in the 400 Unit sing:  I’ve grown tired of traveling alone/Tired of traveling alone/I’ve grown tired of traveling alone/Won’t you ride with me?/Won’t you ride?/Won’t you ride?

The keyboardist was also on one song “the squeezist” as Jason called him. With his accordion, he rocked back-and-forth and took a flying leap forward. His long black hair flying, slender, somewhat-short bod, exotic looks. He and Isbell often collaborated, putting their heads and instruments together in an homage to song in that bay breeze.

One example of an Isbell song that rings with resonance and a grace that rises from the grieving stirring of an emotional life plot stirring:

From the sky we look so organized and brave/Walls that make up barricades and graves/Daddy’s little empire built by hands and built by slaves/From the sky we look so organized and brave

In the heat I saw you rising from the dirt/Drunken tears and tugging at your skirt/If only you could tell me then what part of you got hurt/In the heat I saw you rising from the dirt

He “has cultivated a musical history filled with relationships of desperate participants and broken love. His story-songs are draped in meticulous details and a particularly fierce emotional resonance, and he constructs the kind of communal associations that give each moment its own distinct appearance,” said Joshua Pickard at

And, Annalise Domenighini, in Noisey, (, says “Jason Isbell is still the best songwriter country music has.” She says, “Telling a story is still the most important thing music can do, especially during the Trump administration’s reign of terror. And when it comes to country music, Jason Isbell’s one of the few people I trust to tell a story honestly and with compassionate critique.”

She is talking in particular about his new album The Nashville Sound, from which he performed a few that night, including “If We Were Vampires” and, I believe, “Elephant” (though I don’t find it on the setlist.fam list). These were great too (if I’m right about “Elephant!”) though I don’t have lyrics yet to share.

In a recent visit to Richmond, VA, to see/hear Mipso, I stayed at a Super 8 Motel and have also stayed in Bristol recently. So, Jason’s rousing, rocking finale had particular resonance for me. In "Super 8," from Grammy-award-winning Eastern, he sings:

Having such a sweet night/Audience is just right/Drinking like a pirate do/Don’t want to sleep yet/Buddy it’s a good bet/I’ll raise more hell than you/Do a couple rails/And chase my own tail/And talk about the bad old days  …   Don’t want to die in a Super 8 Motel /Just because somebody’s evening didn’t go so well/If I ever get back to Bristol/I’m better off sleeping in a county jail/Don’t want to die in a Super 8 Motel.

Even though the lyrics are often rough and raw and don’t hold back, there still manages to be a lot of positive thrust through it all in his and the band’s miraculous laying-out of sound, a composite of country and rock. Solidly Americana in its journey through the rich and introspective ballad, “Stockholm,” performed with a minimum of band, is one of my favorites. And, “24 Frames,” was a remarkable-through-narrative journey in a poetic frame edged in instrumental work-outs:

This is how you make yourself vanish into nothing. And this is how you make yourself worthy of the love that she gave to you back when you didn’t own a beautiful thing./And this is how you make yourself call your mother/And this is how you make yourself closer to your brother. Remember him back when he was small enough to help you sing./You thought God was an architect, now you know He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow. And everything you built it’s all for show, goes up in flames./in 24 frames.

This is my second time to catch an Isbell show. I think he’s even better now. He seems happy with his talented wife, Amanda Shires, at home, and charming young child. He shares tough stuff, but manages to leave his audience elevated and smiling, standing tall in rounds of raucous cheers.


For the record "Elephant" is not a new song, it is from Southeastern (2013) as is "Super 8".

Sounds like predictably good night of well written ditties.