Jason Isbell is sober and in love, and lately he has been on the road singing about it, telling allegories about his ascent from addiction and hard living into sobriety and love.
Tuesday night, he brought his four-man band, the 400 Unit, to the Uptown and gave a crowd of more than 1,500 two hours of songs, plumbing a catalog that includes his years with the Drive-By Truckers.
He opened with “Stockholm,” an ode to Amanda Shires, a fellow musician and his wife since 2013: “Once a wise man to the ways of the world / Now I’ve traded those lessons for faith in a girl.”
It’s a song off “Southeastern,” the most acclaimed of Isbell’s four studio albums, released in 2013. He performed 10 of its 12 tracks, including “Elephant,” about the death of a friend from cancer, and “Cover Me Up,” another ode to Shires and clean living. After he sang the line, “I sobered up and swore off that stuff / Forever this time,” his audience gave him some hearty applause.
In “Traveling Alone” he declares his fatigue with being single. And drunk or high: “I’ve grown tired of traveling alone / Won’t you ride with me?”
After “Go It Alone,” a track off 2011’s “Here We Rest,” he played the title track to “Decoration Day,” his first album with the Drive-By Truckers. It’s a song about feuding families. Isbell told the crowd that because he was only 21 at the time and had no good stories to tell, he borrowed some from his family. Later, “Outfit,” another “Decoration Day” song, got one of the biggest ovations of the night.
The mood changed drastically throughout the show, from sad country-folk songs strummed on acoustic guitar to cathartic rock anthems. Isbell sang all of them in his raspy Alabama drawl. He played lead on a few, including “Dress Blues.”
Before “Live Oak,” another crowd favorite, he told a funny story about a 9-year-old at a recent show who wondered about the fate of the woman in the song. He followed that with “Alabama Pines,” a sweet ballad about boredom on the road and the yearning for home.
He closed with two rockers. First, “Super 8,” a song about living hard: “I’m better off sleeping in a county jail /I don’t want to die in a Super 8 Motel.” Then a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.”
Before those, he pulled out another Truckers’ song, “Never Gonna Change.” It evokes plenty of images of the Deep South, like shotguns, liquor, county jails: “Mean and strong like liquor, mean and strong like fear / Strong like the people from south Alabama / And mean like the people from here / Take it from me, we ain’t never gonna change.”
These days, Isbell is role-playing when he sings that one — a man who has made some serious changes in his life singing about the way he used to be.
Damien Jurado: The palpably shy opener gave an attentive and appreciative crowd 45 minutes of tuneful folk ballads. His set list included “Museum of Flight,” “Silver Joy,” “Working Titles” and “Ohio,” a crowd favorite.
Stockholm; Flying Over Water; Tour of Duty; Dress Blues; Go It Alone; Decoration Day; Different Days; Codeine; Traveling Alone; Cover Me Up; Relatively Easy; Songs That She Sang in the Shower; Yvette; Live Oak; Alabama Pines; Elephant; Never Gonna Change; Outfit; Super 8; Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.