Sunday, March 08, 2009

Jason Isbell

I would be remiss if I didn't note that Dave Marsh conducted two great interviews yesterday for Sirius radio.

The first was with Van Morrison.

The second was with Jason Isbell, former member of the Drive-By Truckers, current leader of the band, the 400 Unit. Dave was kind enough to let me sit in, and for someone as enraptured by the guy's music as I am, it was a total treat.

He's a big, quiet man, 30 years old, with dark hair slicked back, snaggly teeth, slightly pop eyes, and the big shoulders and neck of a worker. Thick Alabama accent. He's small town rural and smart as a whip. He has this quiet, slow way of talking where he considers your question and then puts complete answers together, confident but not arrogant. He looks like he doesn't much care for being interviewed, but he cares for the music and recognizes this is another way to get it heard.

The thing that Dave hit on and that struck me was the air of respect Isbell has. It's in his songs: his ability to see both sides of an issue like a soldier returning from war or a tough break-up. He listens. And he learns from all sides. And then he writes these big songs that don't lecture or even make points as much as ask questions.

That respect seems to come from where and how he was brought up. Like Drive-by, his perspective tends to be from the bottom-up. He said (or was it Dave?) that they were making not so much Southern rock as rural music. And in his case anyway, rural music refers to everything from Otis Redding to Muscle Shoals (where he recorded both his solo CD's) to Outkast to Jimi Hendrix. It's an outsider's, working person's take on the world.

Partly as a result of that and partly just cause he seems dead honest, he says he doesn't write too many happy or optimistic songs. He said that more often than not he finds himself facing dilemmas and worrying how things are going to turn out. I picture him writing songs the way you might look at a broken piece of equipment: "Damn! Now how am I gonna fix that?"

All of which may make Isbell sound far too serious and depressing. Last night, after the interview, I went to his show in NYC. And it was just this glorious, heart-felt, inspiring blow-out. He's got four other members in his band, including a little long-haired bass player who looks like he's from Star Wars (what were those fuzzy creatures?) and an angular, ratcheting fellow guitarist, both from Jason's part of the South. Drummer's from Northern Alabama, too; keyboard player presently living in Brooklyn.

His first CD was wonderful. But this second one is better: full of big pop hooks and a wide variety of styles all held together by the band's kick-ass approach and his big voice. There's what you might call a Percy Sledge ballad, complete with a tangy horn section; intense rockers that crescendo up and up; a country-western song or three but sung with no fake nostalgia, just dirt farm directness; and throughout (they played from 10:15 at night till 1:15, with a ten minute break) this amazing directness.

I see something similar with Ozomotli live. And Los Lobos. This sense of a band that's doing what it loves and recognizes it's work and is going to get it right both for its own self-worth and because it wants the crowd to get what they paid for. At one point, in the midst of a solo, Jason and the bass-player got into a quick balancing contest: each standing on one leg and seeing who'd be the first to fall over. This as the music teetered on what seemed like impossible heights and finally fell. On one of the great new songs, "Cigarettes and Wine," Isbell sings of the memory of this woman, saying it lingers inside him still: "wrapped up like a twenty dollar bill." Except you have to hear him drawing out the word "wrapped" till it's like winding up a rubber-band airplane, getting ready for release.

We talk a bunch about whether rock&roll is still alive. I stopped myself a couple of times last night to check that these five people playing guitars, drums and keyboards were really making this heroic, this demanding a storm of music. They were. Not a hint of nostalgia or condescension. Respect for what had come before but no sense that they were trying to duplicate it. Rather, the music seemed to say, times are tough. And this rock&roll thing is an honest way to talk about it.

You know that kind of loopy, dazed look someone gets when they're so deep into what they're doing that they're forgetting to breathe or swallow? Every member of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit had it more than once last night. It was full fucking steam ahead; jump on if you want a ride.

Towards what? Ah. Their closing song, the crowd drenched and hoarse, was a cover: Into the Mystic.



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