Friday, October 18, 2013

Redemption (Jason Isbell)

When excess and stubborn pride diminish a man's life to a point of near zero, the first step in redemption is to admit a lack of control; to recognize and confront weakness. In Rock, where careers are built on ego and gluttony, redemption and adoration are hard to find simultaneously. If you take the bottle of liquor out of a Rock Star's hand and strip him of self-destructive bombast, what's left?

Jason Isbell had to figure it out. The scion of a musical family and a natural talent, in 2001, Isbell found himself leading the Drive By Truckers' southern-fried 3 guitar attack at age 22. He endeared himself to a half-generation of Southern music fans with timeless statements of the "Dirty South" such as "Outfit" and "Decoration Day." While former DBT mates Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley focused on the South's grimy underbelly, Isbell's approach was more nostalgic and down home. Where Hood focuses on anthemic statements of Southern mystery and faded glory ("Sinkhole," "Ronnie & Neil"), and Cooley on loners and crooks ("Women Without Whiskey," "Cottonseed"), Isbell was more the rebellious teenager feeling his way while raging in the Piggly Wiggly parking lot ("Goddamn Lonely Love," "Never Gonna Change"). It was never really a square fit, and Isbell left DBT in 2007 to walk alone.

It was a long and painful road littered with plastic liquor bottles, small crowds, and self-destruction. Success did not find him quickly, substance abuse set in, and Isbell came to represent one of Cooley's desperate loners. The gutter was deep, but thankfully not too long. Things started to turn with the release of 2011's well-received Here We Rest and its memorable sing-along highlight, "Codeine." During the sessions for Rest, Isbell fell in love with now-wife Amanda Shires and sought out sobriety. He found it, probably saving his life in the process. Building off of the success of Rest, Isbell sharpened his focus, embraced sobriety, and moved boldly in the right direction. For a former Drive By Trucker, facing the world solo with an acoustic guitar in hand and his back to the bottle must have been daunting.      

With the release of 2013's critically-acclaimed Southeastern, things have come full circle. Instead of running from his past, Isbell used it as fuel for great music and a better tomorrow. On album highlights like "Tired of Traveling Alone," we see a man with his weaknesses on full display. Haunting album opener "Cover Me Up" provides an immediate admission of vulnerability; elsewhere we find fear of death (barroom rocker "Super 8") and intrigue ("Elephant"). Hardly abandoning his Muscle Shoals / DBT roots ("Flying Over Water"), Isbell is comfortable, and effective, with a Martin acoustic in his hand ("Live Oak"). The result is a superb tour de force that serves as a necessary component of, and stirring testament to, Isbell's ongoing quest for redemption.

I saw him play the Georgia Theater recently with his backing band, the 400 Unit, and he looked and sounded great. This is not a man on shaky ground; there's no apparent apprehension of falling back into the Hole. Watching the taut 90 minute set, I saw a traditionalist that would have been as comfortable at Johnny Cash's Sun Studio as he would jamming at Muscle Shoals with the Stones (this night brought a solid rendition of "Can't You Hear Me Knocking"as the closer). Eschewing displays of virtuosity on the guitar in favor of more terse solos in the Carl Perkins mold, Isbell is a natural and enigmatic showman. He shows an appreciation for his audience instead of rebelling against them; engaging them instead of prodding them. While his DBT songs remain the crowd-pleasing centerpieces of the set (a scorching "Never Gonna Change" was this night's highlight), his solo material continues to gain traction on its merit. What I saw was a healthy, rejuvinated, and vital artist nearing the top of his game; a man who is comfortable in his skin in a way nobody could have expected when he was passing around a handle of Jack Daniels at 1:40 a.m. in his DBT glory days. It's inspiring to watch a man who has confronted and conquered self-destruction, with the battle serving to fuel a vital new period of his art.      

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