I'm ignoring all the distractions I can as Alabama native Jason Isbell takes the stage at Kansas City's Starlight Theatre. I pay no mind to the Sun beaming down out of the west or the small beads of sweat slowly rolling down my beard. Sitting next to me, my dad is slightly less attentive. He's never heard of Isbell, so when the former Drive-By Truckers singer/lyricist/guitarist arrives he's still fiddling with the turquoise jaguar head of his wooden cane. Isbell himself is entirely nonplussed setting up; amiably saying he and backing band the 400 Unit hail from "Muscle Shoals, Alabama."
When the first song "Codeine" comes wafting out of the speakers, my dad perks up and immediately asks me "this is pretty good huh?" I only half hear the question over the warmly piping accordion and leisurely running guitar. They exist to temper the disappointment that nags at so many of Isbell's songs. In the case of "Codeine" those sedate runs betray the mildly venomous repetition of "if there's one thing I can't stand," which ends with contempt for half-baked cover songs and the earsplitting sound of a heart breaking.
"Live Oak" follows and burrows far past disappointment, into true despair. It’s a number that's hard to shake; replete with plinking piano that casts a ghostly pallor. In the verses, an empathetic woman is fooled by the pleasant shadow of a Pre-Civil War murderer and soon her empathy lands her six feet in the ground. Strangely the despair doesn't come from the woman who realizes her mistake, but the murderer. He wonders aloud "would I ever find another friend?" as he walks away from her fresh grave. You can hear loneliness creeping into his voice as he wipes flecks of dirt from his hands. Love and romance are untenable with the life he's leading, a fact he has to know but refuses to concede. Though murder's an obvious extreme, we all have things we think can coexist with love and romance. Frequently we want love to come on our own terms, which isn't the way it works.
While "Alabama Pines" picks up the tempo, it retains much of "Live Oak"'s want. This time however, Isbell's stuck in a dingy motel room with no A.C., looking to get back to the Heart of Dixie. The steely caress of guitar and trotting drums can't quell his yearning. Like anyone who has been away too long, he's not looking to see anything special. I can identify. Any time I'd make my three hour drive back to Kansas City from Kirksville when I was in college, the first thing I'd want to do was lie in my own bed or walk around my neighborhood block. What Isbell wants is to grab a libation from Wayne's: the only liquor store open on a Sunday.
Returning home or dwelling on the past isn't all good though and "Cover Me Up" adroitly proves that point. Opening Isbell's marvelous 2013 record Southeastern, the echoing acoustic track recalls "days when we raged," and had the vocal bite to match. Dabbed with lavender stage lights Isbell howls about flying off the handle and the damage that "was done." While the moment felt intensely personal, its message is universally relatable to those inside and outside of Starlight’s brick walls. Sometimes what you've done can't be corrected and all you can say is "mistakes were made" and move on. Of course the ugly truth of making so many of the same mistakes for so long is that you run out of friends willing to keep forgiving you. Set closer "Traveling Alone" woefully acknowledges this. Underpinned by eddying guitar and near silent drums, Isbell is looking for anyone who will hop in the car with him and drive. "Won't you ride with me?" he asks with desperation hanging in the summer evening air. Knowing where to go doesn't mean a damn thing if you have no one to go with.
Though I wanted to hear the heart-rending cancer story "Elephant", I'm not disappointed when the set ends without its inclusion. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit are unwaveringly committed to their muse and even if they chase it through pitch-black valleys, I'm happy to follow. And in the future, I'll have someone to follow along with me.