If you have spoken to me about music over the past year or so, you probably know that my favorite album of 2013 was Jason Isbell’s Southeastern. In fact, it is probably the best album that I have heard in years. And I’m not alone in singing (actually just talking) its praises. It made a ton of year-end best lists, topping some, and has been nominated for all sorts of awards. Although for some reason, WFUV, which you would expect would be all over this disc, never really committed to it. Southeastern’s incredible songwriting, singing and playing, when coupled with Isbell’s story of talent, addiction, leaving a band, marriage and redemption scored Isbell about as much publicity as you can get playing the type of confessional Americana music that he plays. He has been on Letterman (who loves him) and Conan and has been featured on NPR and on the CBS News. But with the music business being what it is, the album has probably sold less in total than some no-talent pre-fab tween pop tart sells in a day.
For the most part, Southeastern is a pretty mellow affair, but its songs’ messages are anything but laid back. There are lots of songs that can be directly or indirectly tied to his life story, and one, “Elephant,” about a woman dying of cancer, that is literally brilliant. Almost every song has imbedded itself into my head, so that I couldn’t tell you what song is my favorite.
The album had just come out last summer, right before my family and I were going to see him perform at the Clearwater festival. I’ve mentioned that performance before, mostly in the context of how great it was that his former colleague in the Drive-By Truckers, Patterson Hood, sat in on one song, and Isbell returned the favor during Hood’s set. Especially since Hood was one of the people who was instrumental in essentially kicking Isbell out of the band when his drinking became too much of a problem. (Clearly, they have buried the hatchet—just the other day, Isbell, Hood and Trucker Mike Cooley performed an entire show together for a benefit.)
Although I had heard the album, it was still new, and hearing Isbell perform the songs, basically solo, was thrilling. Even my wife, who was never the big DBT fan that my son and I are, was blown away. Then, we found out that Isbell, with the full band, was going to be playing at Lincoln Fucking Center, as part of a series of pretty well-respected artists from across the musical spectrum—including jazz, opera and musical theater. I went with my son, his girlfriend and a musician friend of mine who was unfamiliar with Isbell (my wife had a prior commitment). It was an incredible show, in an incredible venue. The entire broadcast from PBS is here, and it is primarily songs from Southeastern, with some older songs and some Truckers classics.
The set ends with “Super 8,” the one real rocker on the album, a Stones-influenced rave about the craziness and danger of life on the road, particularly in cheap motels. In a recent piece in, yes, The Wall Street Journal, debuting the official video for the song, which is above, Isbell was quoted as saying: “This song is one story built out of moments from many different actual nights. Things that are funny now, but weren’t funny at all when they were happening. The song took a couple hours to write, but years to live through.”
By the way, after “Super 8,” the band encored with an actual Stones song, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” a part of which you can hear at the end of the video.
And have I mentioned how much I liked Southeastern?
Thursday, June 19, 2014