When I go to a concert, I enforce something that I am now naming the “three song rule”. This basically means that I try to reserve judgement for the first three songs of the concert because this is the time when everyone is settling in. The musicians are warming up and shaking off possible nerves, the sound might still be getting adjusted, and people in the crowd are scrambling to snap blurry Instagram photos. Some of the best concerts I’ve seen needed a couple of songs to hit their stride. But when Jason Isbell took the stage of the Phoenix on Tuesday, it took him all of about 30 seconds to find his groove. And by halfway through the opening verse of the first song, “Flying Over Water”, I knew that I was in for a fantastic show.
Everything about Isbell’s live show signals that he is a seasoned musician and a consummate professional. From his lively backing band, The 400 Unit, to his drawling and polite stage banter, the Alabama native knows how to put on a show.
He sings with a laser sharp precision, but while each note feels perfectly planned and executed, his vocals feel far from robotic. He belted out the big notes on songs like “Danko/Manuel” and rocked out on “Super 8” but then also pulled back on more intimate fare, such as the heartbreaking “Elephant”, which was adorned with only Isbell’s acoustic guitar and a keyboard.
Isbell is so personable that it’s easy to see why the night almost turned into one big love-in. When Isbell thanked the crowd for listening to his latest album, 2013’s Southeastern, one particularly Canadian heckler yelled back, “Thank YOU for making it!” sparking a tongue-in-cheek “‘Thank you!’ ‘No, thank YOU’” monologue from Isbell. The crowd also broke into cheers during “Cover Me Up” when Isbell sang the openly autobiographical line, “I sobered up and swore off that stuff forever this time”.
It’s not surprising that Isbell got such a warm response. His genuine love of music is obvious, and he and his band indulged the crowd with a sprawling two-hour set that covered a variety of fan favourites. Almost every track from Southeastern was represented, as were a sampling of songs from his previous solo albums. He also dipped back into his days with the Drive-By Truckers, and “Decoration Day” (the title track from DBT’s 2003 album) really came alive in person. Isbell took the epic story-song of feuding Southern families and fleshed it out with venomous, snarling vocals and just enough guitar solos to highlight how shattering that song is.
“Decoration Day” wasn’t the only vintage Isbell song that sounded better live than on recording, which likely speaks to his growth as an artist. Isbell was 22 years old when he joined the Drive-By Truckers and now, at the seemingly much more balanced but still young age of 35, it really feels like he’s in top form as a musician.
Also proving to be quite a polished performer was Isbell’s opener, Doug Paisley. The Toronto native was joined by a small backing band to showcase a number of tracks from his top-notch album from earlier this year, Strong Feelings. Truth be told, Paisley’s considerably more mellow brand of alt-country paled a bit in comparison to Isbell’s sheer might as a live performer, but taken for his own merits, Paisley made for quite an enjoyable opening act. Paired with Isbell, it was an all too rare night of music by two men at the top of their respective musical games.