The house music drifting in after Jason Isbell’s gorgeous set is Tom T. Hall’s “I Love,” a simple song about baby ducks, slow moving trains, and all that is good in the world. There could perhaps be no more appropriate send-off for the packed house at St. Augustine Amphitheatre. Jason Isbell has once again given Florida more love than we deserve.
Like Tom T. Hall, Isbell is supremely respectful of his craft, his colleagues, and his audience. The undercurrent of Isbell’s set, at one of Florida’s truly special venues, is one of mutual respect. Opener Shovels and Rope heaps praise on Isbell for how he carries himself. Isbell plays his heart out through a balanced set that feels much shorter than its actual two hour duration, returning well deserved praise for Shovels and Rope in the process.
His setlist is heavy on the Grammy-winning Something More Than Free, the first time Florida has enjoyed such a treat. Last time the 400 Unit blazed its way through Florida, the album had yet to be released. Now, we are clamoring for it; and Isbell obliges.
Isbell’s incredible wife, Amanda Shires conspicuously flanks him stage left, her presence casting an auspicious glow. She — the catalyst for sobering up a once troubled genius — deserves enormous praise for her own work, but on this night it is her influence we celebrate. The mutual respect between Isbell and Shires is tangible.
Isbell plays a smattering of favorites from various albums before announcing today is Amanda’s birthday. The news is met with an appropriate ovation before we launch into an Isbell-orchestrated, “Happy Birthday to Amanda.” Ever intentional, Isbell’s next tune is “Travelling Alone.” A song about getting tired of single life on the road. “What good does knowin’ do, with no one to show it to?” he sings.
There’s a line about Ybor City, FL in Isbell’s beautiful ode to finally settling down…
Damn near strangled by my appetite / Ybor City on a Friday night / Couldn’t even stand up right”
The lyrics always receive a huge cheer from Florida crowds in recognition of Isbell’s connection to our state, to The South.
We just lost a great southern voice in Pat Conroy recently — he of The Water is Wide, The Prince of Tides, and other wonderful written stories. To stubbornly lament such a loss is to ignore the influx of amazing ambassadors for our complex corner of the world. Isbell is writing real stories, with blemishes on full display, but doing so in a flawless manner. Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, and Cory Branan, too. As if tapping into our collective inner monologue and knowing what we next crave, Isbell plays “Speed Trap Town.”
“I know some of y’all know the kinda place I’m talkin’ about,” Isbell says. We sure do, sir. We know everything you are saying, just can’t find the words ourselves. In a night of highlights, the intro to the next tune manages to peek its head above the throng.
Isbell plays Drive-by Truckers-era songs every set. The people want it, and he respects that fact. Accordingly, an unrecognizable finger walking on the neck of his guitar builds until the unmistakable explosion of “Never Gonna Change” rockets forward into a perfectly crisp night.
“Never Gonna Change” shows off both Isbell and Sadler Vaden’s virtuosity. This effort is smokin’. Isbell and Vaden trade licks so furiously that Jason is left to chuckle with appreciation for his guitarist, for the moment.
Much has been made of Jason Isbell’s love and respect for Amanda. “I never play this unless Amanda is with me,” he tells us. “Flagship” is a cautionary tale about not allowing a relationship to get stale. It is the survey of a difficult labor. One of finding ways to make the effort even after a relationship is well established in the routine. Its narrator hustles up to the couple’s hotel room to get a pair of boots because she likes the way they shine. He promises to drive her to the ocean every day.
Isbell’s respect for the song, for her, induces a tear or three from this writer. There is a presence to the moment. No longer is there a setlist to maintain, or thoughts to scribble — only an exchange of love between two people, between members of a band, between us and them.
Tears four, five, and six begin flowing. Isbell is telling the story of “Cover Me Up,” a song he wrote for Amanda when they were “living in sin” before marriage. Isbell and Shires retreated to opposite sides of the house to write, then came together at the end of the day and played the results for each other. Great as Jason Isbell is, the task was daunting. Such is the impact of Amanda Shires in his life. The fruit of the exercise was poetic. “Cover Me Up” is so rich with imagery and confession as to be almost too much to listen to at times. Presence, respect. My notebook remains stark during these three minutes. My heart wells over.
Thank Yahweh for “Super 8” coming up next, a rock song of the finest degree. An ass-kicker. Isbell knows we were just worn out by two painfully beautiful efforts in a row and gives us a much needed break.
“Children of Children” following “Super 8” makes a ton of sense. The coda sendoff before the encore features an almost phaser-like sound coming from Isbell’s guitar as he basks in a spotlight stage front.
The 400 Unit comes back out to “Flying over Water,” then an excuse to swing or rumba or whatever “Codeine” stirs in the dancer. Just like that, it’s over. For two hours we were lost in an eddy of bliss, now we are bathed in house lights. Respect, love, a new wave of excellent storytelling and musicianship have all washed over the St. Augustine Ampthitheatre.
“I love winners when they cry/Losers when they try/Music when it’s good, and life”
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Jason Isbell Live Review & Concert Photos by Jason Earle, photo editing assistance by the wonderful & talented, Kris Osborne.
Jason Isbell Setlist:
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