By Tyler Miles
Photos by Pati Bobeck
WILKES-BARRE – A small crowd at the F.M. Kirby Center backed progressive country singer Jason Isbell after a tough road to sobriety during a sorrowful show Friday night.
The performance itself wasn’t sorrowful, quite the opposite. Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, were lively, mobile and humorous, often engaging fans with jokes and personal stories from the road. Yet the dark content of nearly each song, along with Isbell’s wife and bandmate Amanda Shires’ mournful fiddle, combine to create a musical hearse, without brakes and nothing but a depressing view of the South.
Following opening sets by Shires and Mike Mizwinski, starting the show with the somewhat upbeat, bluesy rock song “Go It Alone” from “Here We Rest,” his 2011 release, Isbell set the crowd into motion. Members of the audience stood and whistled as the song rolled on, and most danced to the buoyant music.
Isbell also played a small selection of songs from his days as a member of Drive-by Truckers, such as the hateful “Decoration Day,” which focuses on father-son issues and historical Southern disputes, and “Outfit.”
But it seemed that no matter how loud they played, how much they stirred on the faintly lit stage, the somber personal lyrics and ghosts of a grim past permeated all in attendance.
And it wasn’t long before Isbell set aside his electric guitar, raised up an acoustic, and told the fans, “Y’all having a good time? It’s time for some dark music, because it’s not always a good time.”
However, despite the blackness of the majority of the content within Isbell’s songs, the brilliant songwriter’s fans praised and congratulated his honesty and talent all night long.
During the soft song “Cover Me Up,” Isbell roared the lyrics, “I sobered up, and swore off that stuff, forever this time,” to which the audience responded with a standing ovation and shouts of praise for the recently sobered singer.
The majority of the songs played throughout the night by Isbell and the 400 Unit were off “Southeastern,” Isbell’s fourth studio album and most successful to date, thanks in part to his newfound sobriety which seemed to have only heightened his already respected creativity and songwriting prowess.
“Elephant” describes the decay of a relationship with a female friend suffering from cancer. Before the song, the members of 400 Unit left the stage, leaving a cowed Isbell alone on stage to perform the tune, cloaked in a dim blue light and vulnerable, strapped with his acoustic guitar.
Isbell’s performance was personal and inviting. With lyrics laden with death, alcoholism, heartbreak, and even cancer, the Southern rocker tells daring stories and touches fans. And in the midst of the mostly gloomy performance, the now happy singer proves himself to be a beacon of inspiration and honest performer.
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