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Review

Musician Jason Isbell exceeds expectations and continues to rise to the top

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February 25, 2016

There have been many twists and turns that have led Jason Isbell to where he stands today. Through much of his adult life, Isbell has struggled with alcohol, drama with his old band Drive-by Truckers, and the divorce from his first wife. Recently, Isbell has seen brighter days. After an intervention with singer songwriter Ryan Adams, and Isbell’s then girlfriend, Amanda Shires, Isbell went into rehab for his drinking. Once sober, Isbell married Shires while reclaiming his musical career, releasing some of his most commercially and critically successful material ever. In Minneapolis on Monday, all of those detours and shortcuts were worn on the singer’s sleeve as he played to a sold out crowd at the Northrop Auditorium. While most detest the delay and trouble of a detour and quickly latch on to as many short cuts as they can find, Isbell has found a way to embrace both and find a balance within himself and the people around him. Monday’s performance was a celebration of his new found fame, his recent Grammy award, and most importantly, his new-found happiness.

The show started promptly at 7:30 p.m. with opening act Shovels and Rope from Charleston, South Carolina. As ticketholders were still filling into their seats, Shovels and Rope delivered a fulfilling and satisfying show. The band, comprising only of married couple Michael and Cary Ann Hearst, performed an exciting set of songs picked from all over their catalog. Their mix of outlaw country and blues rock provided enough of a wakeup call for spectators coming in from the dark and cold February night. Once all signs of Shovels and Rope were cleared and nearly every seat in the auditorium had been claimed, Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, and Isbell’s band, The 400 Unit, walked on stage while the crowd cheered over the Rod Stewart song playing from the P.A. The band, ready to play, grabbed their instruments in front of a background of fake stained glass that made the stage look like a southern church.

Starting with “24 Frames,” the lead single from 2015’s, Something More Than Free, Isbell and company quickly found a groove that would propel them into a level of quality not seen from many modern artists.  The song, which discusses the challenges and new perspectives brought on by divorce and other personal trauma, painted the picture of where Isbell has been, where he is now, and where he’s going.  The lines “you thought god was an architect/well now you know/he’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow” echoed in the auditorium as the line not only meant something to Isbell but also to many members of the audience.  Isbell continued on with “Palmetto Rose,” which showed his ability to weave a powerful chorus with a funky bluesy beat. The show continued with select cuts from his current album and his breakthrough 2013 record, Southeastern. To appease the Drive-by Trucker fans, Isbell played the fan favorites “Decoration Day” and “Never Gonna Change.” Both tunes displayed Isbell’s strong yet understated guitar skills. Isbell’s love letter to his wife, “Cover Me Up,” showed the real musical and romantic connection between the singer and Shires. The blend of their harmonies was one of the most remarkable moments of the show. After a finale of “Children of Children,” the band returned for an encore of the crowd favorite “Elephant” and the folk jam, “Codeine.” “Codeine” allowed the band to let loose and have fun with the music. The sing-along chorus caused the whole auditorium to break out in song.

It’s hard to say where Jason Isbell is headed. Within a matter of years, he has climbed from playing the Turf Club in St. Paul to selling out large rooms like the Northrop Auditorium and picking up a Grammy along the way. While Southeastern may have put him on the map as a solo artist and Something More Than Free has cemented his place in Americana music, anyone walking out of Monday’s show can’t help to think that this isn’t where the upward movement stops. I would find it hard to believe that Isbell thinks that this is where he plateaus. Although Isbell’s recent performances and albums would be considered the best by any other artist, Isbell knows that Monday’s performance wasn’t all he can do. On top of that, Isbell knows that Something More Than Free isn’t the best he has in him. Isbell is a classic artist in the making and like all other timeless artists he’s not looking for an end point. Isbell is just looking for the next stepping stone.

Matthew Clark is a junior journalism student. Besides being the music director at WRFW and the circulation manager at the Student Voice, Clark has become an accomplished musician, performing with the likes of Chicago and Daughtry. He has also contributed to a few movie soundtracks.