Steeped in Americana, he practices the kind of storytelling that marks a through line from traditional folk songs to golden-age country, a kind of songwriting that has experienced a resurgence in the past decade or so. A man with a guitar singing heartfelt narratives about cheap motels, drinking too much, and hard work is well tread territory at this point.
The difference between Isbell and many other performers in this vein is twofold. Unlike many singer-songwriters with similar styles, he is less than a generation removed from the life he sings about—Isbell was the child of teenage parents in rural Alabama and attended Pentecostal churches. He is also extraordinarily gifted. Both a polished embodiment of a certain recent type of alt country persona and a genuine product of the life from whence it comes, he is, too, a seeming contradiction.
This paradox of real and unreal was the prevailing theme of his set last week at the Criterion. For a relatively stripped down Monday night show, it was a heady atmosphere. The stage setup was clearly meant to evoke a rural church. The house was full, and enthusiastically so. The congregants watched Isbell perform song after song with chord progressions and lyrics engineered to wring the emotion out of them. This happened a lot—for all of their fiction, the stage-set church and the stories induced a genuine experience.
And what an experience it was. Isbell, on the pulpit amidst plastic stained glass windows and fog under sunlight-yellow stage lights that mimicked floating sanctuary dust, delivered gut punch after gut punch until redemption was felt. He filled the Criterion with deeply proficient guitar playing and a voice that cuts, that makes one appeal to a higher power.
The enthusiasm of the crowd added to the feeling of being in a rowdy rural church. There was no speaking in tongues, but there were plenty of tears, shouts, and love. Isbell told stories of the fundamental flaws in the contract we all hold with the world—that hard work and love will beget happiness, and that everything will turn out okay in the end. As in life, things don’t always work out in a Jason Isbell song, but he shows such a sense of humanity that it is clear, at the very least, that we are all in this together.
This is not to say that the show didn’t have its lighter moments. Jason Isbell knows how to rock, and he did so with extreme prejudice, including a version of the Rolling Stones’ “Can You Hear Me Knocking” that was a real crowd pleaser. It was like drinking Sunday night bourbon at home after spending the day in church and eating dinner at Grandma’s place—a strange paradox to some, but a natural fit for those who've experienced it.
Amanda's husband, Matt Guillory, also reviewed the venue itself in an article you can read here.