|ALL PHOTOS BY LOUIS KWOK|
Are you living the life you chose?
Are you living the life that chose you?
"A lot of people request this song and ask this song to be dedicated to a loved one, but I just can't do it," Jason Isbell said to the audience at the Peabody Opera House in St. Louis near the end of his main set.
"Because I wrote it for her."
The song was "Cover Me Up," and to his left was Amanda Shires, his beautiful and talented wife, who, last night, was part of Isbell's band, the 400 Unit. She played fiddle and sang with her husband for many of the 18 songs, sending home a thrilled audience of 2,500+ after an encore of "Flagship" and "Codeine."
But it wasn't always this way for Isbell.
Before "Cover Me Up," he recalled past times in St. Louis, when he played the now-defunct Frederick's Music Lounge. And later, before the encore, he added: "There were times when I would come back out for the encore, and everyone had left," Isbell said "But we would play the encore anyway."
That Isbell remembers those days is a feat in itself.You know the story. And it's time to let that story die.
But before I get to the "why," it would be a huge mistake to omit the opening performance by Shovels & Rope, a husband and wife duo from Charleston, South Carolina. With guitar, percussion, and vocals, Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst filled the Peabody Opera House with their authenticity and charm.
Their talent is undeniable when you see them perform songs like "Bridge on Fire," "Gasoline," and "Lay Low," three of my favorites in recent memory. And although they didn't perform the latter, they did close with "Birmingham," another firecracker, which earned them a genuine standing ovation from a sedentary crowd. If you're reading this and are new to their music, start with O' Be Joyful, and work your way through their catalog -- a small wooded treasure that will continue to grow.
They were for the perfect opener for Isbell, who was clearly appreciative of the huge stage he was commanding. Before he even played a note or sang a word, he thanked the audience for being there. I don't know what he was thinking at that moment -- perhaps remembering, as he referenced later, when he opened for Ryan Adams on the same stage in 2012 -- a time when fans still only called out for his songs that he wrote as a Drive-By Trucker.
Or maybe he realized everything he's lost -- and gained -- along the way. I don't know. I only wish that the narrative would shift from "Isbell is finally clean and sober and he's saving country music" to something that we all see in front of us.
We see a clean-cut, incredibly fit, six-foot-one beast that is one of America's best songwriters. Once, perhaps, he had nothing to lose. Today, he can sing a song like "Dress Blues" as a reminder that there is so much to lose. The following lyrics were poignant:
Nobody here could forget you
You showed us what we had to lose
There was so much love in the room last night for Jason Isbell.
His latest album, Something More Than Free, talks a lot about choice, about how the future is never guaranteed, about how you can control the effort you show to the world. The rewards may never come, but no one is going to feel sorry for you. Listen to "To a Band That I Loved," which closes the album. Dreams are smoke. We're still finding our part.
Last evening, there were four songs, played consecutively, that best represented the gift that Isbell is putting to use. "24 Frames," which questions everything, showed off its fiery Skynyrd-esque guitar solo. It was coupled nicely with the aforementioned "Cover Me Up," a song that was sung deeply from the gut. Each time he charged with "Go leave your boots by the bed, we ain't leaving this room," the crowd roared. My guess is that even if he had mailed it in, they would have responded the same way.
But Isbell held nothing back. He quickly picked up the pace with "If It Takes a Lifetime" and then slowed it down again with "Speed Trap Town." Both are songs from Something More Than Free, and both tell stories of what happens in a world that is often cruel.
Like Andy Dufresne said in The Shawshank Redemption: "Get busy living, or get busy dying."
And now, Jason Isbell is something more than free. He's alive.
2. Palmetto Rose
3. Decoration Day
4. Alabama Pines
5. Dress Blues
6. The Life You Chose
7. Traveling Alone
9. Never Gonna Change
10. Something More Than Free
11. 24 Frames
12. Cover Me Up
13. If It Takes A Lifetime
14. Speed Trap Town
15. Super 8
16. Children of Children
SHOVELS AND ROPE