WORDS BY ELIZABETH DIAZ-ESQUIVAL | PHOTOS BY CHARLIE TIMBERLAKE
Jason Isbell kicked off his three night, sold out engagement at the Georgia Theatre on Wednesday, November 29th, in his old stomping grounds of Athens, Georgia. Isbell arrived in Athens as a member of the Drive-By Truckers from 2001-07, and came back now having grown wildly in his brawn as a solo artist.
He has surrounded himself with extreme prowess in his band The 400 Unit: Jimbo Hart on bass, Chad Gamble on Drums, Derry deBorja on keyboard and accordion, Sadler Vaden (of Drivin and Cryin) on electric guitar, and his wife Amanda Shires completing the line up with fiddle and harmony.
With what seems like a constantly furrowed brow and somber storytelling style, you would not expect a Jason Isbell show to be lively, but it was. He bared his rock chops with “Never Gonna Change” (penned during his time with the Trucker’s) and jumped all over the stage while playing “Codeine” accompanied by deBorja on accordion, an instrument Isbell aptly described as one that “makes you hungry and horny at the same time.” Almost like a more Southern, more crowd loving Ryan Adams, Isbell is clearly enjoying himself and that connects with his audience deeply.
But this audience wasn’t just any crowd – they were his. They were here for the lovefest, singing along sometimes so loudly that you almost couldn’t hear Isbell over them. There is a reason one sold out night at the Georgia Theatre turned into three. They shushed people who were being a little too loud at the bar. They paid reverence to the guy who they gave a chance to awhile back, who made good, who gets them. And in the same vein Isbell exuded his gratefulness. Athens is the town where he met his wife and the second place after Muscle Shoals, AL that “gave a damn” about his music, and it was clear how happy he was to be back with old friends.
As he played “Cover Me Up” from his breakout album, 2013’s Southeastern, he stood alone on stage for the first verse and sang with the heart gripping passion of someone who is about to kiss a person that they have longed after for years. His songs are stories of extremely relatable human experience, which makes his themes universally poignant to someone from the rural hill country or a white collar yuppie. As his last two albums have garnered him awards and acclaim, Isbell has paid his dues and is experiencing what is hopefully a long Renaissance period, as he is ready and deserving to be the one of faces of true, honest American(a) music today.