Saturday, March 5, 2016

Review: Recent Grammy winner Jason Isbell at Ovens

Watching songwriter and band leader Jason Isbell sing his incredibly intimate "Cover Me Up" - a song he wrote about his wife and band member, Amanda Shires - with her standing a few feet away, was more honest and moving than any scene I've ever witnessed on a "reality" show. In fact Friday's concert at Ovens Auditorium featured two couples, both new parents, who sometimes sang as much to each other as they did to the audience.

When Isbell and Shires harmonized "I'm tired of traveling alone" on the song "Traveling Alone," she smiled each time she sang the chorus' last line, "Won't you ride with me?" as if she couldn't help but smile. Later during "Flagship" it was just the two of them singing love not souring, of not growing apart like so many couples do.

Earlier in the night, Charleston's Shovels & Rope - married duo Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent - harmonized with such passion and energy as one drummed and the other played guitar, that it didn't matter that their instruments kept them anchored to center stage. Who needs to work the crowd from one end of the stage to the other when you've got that kind of spirit?

At times each of them - because they traded off on drums and guitar - commanded a mind-boggling four tasks at once, thumping the kick drum, hitting the snare with a stick with their left hand while plunking a small piano with the right, and singing almost constant harmony.

They made a name for themselves in the wide world of folk, but I kept thinking during their set that they're really a rock n' roll band. There was often a early rock n' roll swagger and `50s pop-rock bounce to the songs. Shovels & Rope also shook up their own material with altered arrangements and benefited from the kind of light show that is usually reserved for the headliner.

Isbell's band, which has remained the same group of Alabama and SC players through its history, seemed somehow bigger on Ovens' wide stage (he previously played Visulite and Neighborhood Theatre, as well as the Whitewater Center in recent years). Having recently won two Grammys for Best Americana Album and Best American Roots Song and selling out increasingly larger venues, it was fitting to build a grander show in look and sound. The band rose to the occasion with Shires' and keyboardist Derry DeBorja at times helping to give the songs a symphonic, polished pop underbelly.

The set began with "Palmetto Rose," a tribute to nearby Charleston, which is peppered with references to "the iodine state." He followed it with that recent Grammy winning song, "24 Frames." Songs by his old band, Drive-By Truckers, which he left in 2007, still garner a big response. "Decoration Day" was met with whoops and shouts at the start. The crowd rose to its feet when they thought the song was nearing an end. Turned out that ending was a fake out and the song escalated with guitar solo and extended ending, which put the exclamation point on the performance.

"Life You Chose" seemed written for this broader, bigger setting as well. Isbell's band, the 400 Unit, no longer plays gritty bar band although its rendition of Drive-By Truckers' "Never Gonna Change" came the closest - a hard charging slice of Southern rock. It highlighted Isbell's guitar playing. He stood center stage, fingers climbing the fret board, much more rock god than the country boy from Alabama we know him as.

While the set was full of highlights the aforementioned "Cover Me Up" was the pinnacle. The song, which opened his Americana Award winning 2013 album "Southeastern," addresses his hard-fought sobriety and Shires' love and patience. The song covers so much ground, encompassing romance, need, danger, trust and sex within its lines. He attacked the microphone with such fire that he sounded like he might sing himself hoarse. His performance and her presence raised goosebumps and drew tears from some onlookers.

The set wound to a close with "Relatively Easy," "Speed Trap Town,"  "Super 8," and "Children of Children." The latter built to a climax with Isbell illuminated at center stage for another ripping guitar solo. If the lights beaming down at his feet had not been visible it would've looked like the rays were rising from him, giving him a sort of halo-ish glow like paintings of Jesus (or Olivia Newton John in "Xanadu").

The encore began with his similarly no-frills take on cancer, "Elefant" that re-triggered waterworks in the crowd. But the show ended on an up-note with the 400 Unit's "Codeine," a rollicking nod to their honky-tonk roots.

For those of us who have followed Isbell since his Trucker days and watched him mature into one of America's great songwriters, knowing his background, and witnessing his sobriety, marriage, and newfound fatherhood from afar, the show was a testament to how things can turn around for someone who works hard at their craft and on themselves. As Truckers' fans know, Isbell exhibited startling promise from the get-go, so it's kind of beautiful seeing his work come to fruition with recognition on global scale.

Photo Credit: Courtney Devores