My daughter and I saw Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit (with Amanda Shires) last night in the Chicago Theatre. Concerts are magical. You’re sitting in a room, an ornate and beautiful room at that, surrounded by people. If you’re like me, you’re keenly aware of how steep the stairs are to the seats that you’re in, and when you stand up, you lean forward a bit with that weird sense of gravity pulling you off the balcony. And then, it all slips away to a world of music and words without gravity or limitation.
Last night the guy sitting next to me was vibrating with excitement and it spilled out.
“Do you like Isbell?”
It seemed an odd question to ask a person at a Jason Isbell concert. My daughter was my date because I didn’t know anyone else nearby who shared my passion for his music. She loves music and is always game to go to a concert. At first, she was convinced that he is a country artist and for a lover of Bowie and Queen that’s not a good thing. But, Isbell is not a typical country artist. He’s more an artist than country, and she left the Theatre a fan.
I told the guy next to me that I was a huge fan, which he really didn’t care about one whit. He just wanted to tell me that he hoped Isbell would sing “Anxiety” because when he heard it he burst into tears, knowing that someone out there knows what he’s feeling.
He told me about hearing a number of Isbell’s songs for the first time and their impact. He told me his wife, sitting to his left, had been begging him to stop playing the new album because he had it going nonstop.
He didn’t need me for this conversation, just as an audience for his monologue. He needed to vibrate and spill and rattle on until Isbell finally came to the stage.
Though I was irritated, I also totally understood his state of mind. Jason Isbell doesn’t sing about normal stuff. I mean, he does sing about love lost and love found. But he also sings about incest and cancer and anxiety, about children having children and white privilege.
He’s funny at times, in a wry way. He’s sad sometimes, bitter occasionally, curious and insightful. He tells stories and those stories sometimes hurt to hear, or make you gasp in recognition.
There is a country feel to some of this music, and for a lover of country music, this is a good thing. But, he’s also a rocker down to his toes. Last night was about the rock and the emotion. If I had to guess, I’d say that Isbell is tired and a bit down, but only because of his setlist. The energy in the room was a live wire of sound.
Thankfully, Isbell sang “Anxiety.” The guy next to me could not have returned to his own life without hearing it. He also sang “Elephant,” a song about cancer that tears my heart out. I heard it for the first time not long after I was diagnosed and it meant so much to hear someone singing about cancer honestly and not painting angel wings or armor on cancer patients. These lines describe a belief that I share, “There’s one thing that's real clear to me / No one dies with dignity / We just try to ignore the elephant somehow”
The thing is, though, Isbell doesn’t ignore the elephant. He describes it and brings us closer to it, shining light on those feelings and situations that aren’t polite conversation. His observations are so true. This, from “Children of Children” — I was riding on my mother's hip / She was shorter than the corn / All the years I took from her / Just by being born — sees a part of my life I’ve never been able to put into words.
There were so many songs I wanted him to sing, like “Children of Children” that he didn’t. He has so many evocative and perfect songs.
But a new one, “If We Were Vampires,” was the heart breaker of the night. It’s a strange juxtaposition of a pop-culture image with a truth that he is struggling with.
It's knowing that this can't go on forever
Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone
Maybe we'll get forty years together
But one day I'll be gone or one day you'll be gone
Maybe time running out is a gift
I'll work hard 'til the end of my shift
And give you every second I can find
And hope it isn't me who's left behind
The fact that his wife, Amanda Shires, is playing the fiddle right beside him meant there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Jason Isbell is an artist who speaks about the human condition, living in the wake of addiction, of loss, of failure, of death, and suffering. I am so grateful that he is in the world crafting poetry about the elephant in the room.
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