It was a night to remember at the Modell Lyric Opera House in Baltimore last week; a night of mixtures and juxtapositions. There was James McMurtry with his blunt, solemn lyrical observations, delivering somber truths in his black fedora hat and spiraling curls; and Jason Isbell, with lyrics so emotionally moving he’s got fans loyal to the core, engaging in joyful play with his wife and band mate Amanda Shires, and the rest of the crew. Americana Highways pulled out its camera and its notepad and sat back to enjoy the best of what a night of music can provide.
James McMurtry came on with a bang, warming up fans with his popular “Childish Things,” a song that’s popular for its hard truths; its namesake album won the Americana Music Album of the Year Award in 2006. Before launching into another of his soothsaying songs, “Copper Canteen,” he addressed the audience wryly: “this next song was mentioned in the New York Times, a “fake news industry,” which is what we used to refer to in this country as a free press.” A clear sign we are living , and surviving, in 2018.
Between songs again McMurtry had the audience smiling and nodding with empathetic recognition, as he mused about needing the right balance between being “drunk and pissed off, you need the right amount of each to write a song,” and then played the immensely relatable “Ain’t Got a Place.” Later, he thrilled the crowd with “one of the Robert Earl Keen songs that I wrote:” “Levelland,” a song that’s equally moving both lyrically and musically, with McMurtry’s iconic vocals striking the central chord. The band, Jeff Botta on drums; Cornbread on bass and Tim Holt on guitars, was so subtle and attuned together it’d be obvious to anyone they’ve all played together for years. “Restless,” another familiar song, again regaled the audience with its unemotive realism: “she’ll come back if I let her be.” He told the theatre that he is “usually at the Continental Club in Austin, Texas on Wednesday nights,” if we are ever in town.
Before his last number there were genuine thanks to Jason Isbell and his team; and to the audience: “thanks for being here.” The James McMurtry left us to ponder that there are “No More Buffalo:” and “no more rock and roll ‘cause we all know that.” The lyrics, as always, invariably forcing us to confront frightening truths about humankind and what we’ve done and the reality of the underbelly of our culture’s history.
In a more poignant, complementary way, the same can be said for Jason Isbell’s songwriting. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit came on easy in the darkness with “Hope the High Road,“ a song that echoes the sentiments of most of McMurtry’s songs; lyrics about the uncomfortable state of the country right now, and Isbell’s plea for us to take the high road in otherwise divisive debates. Then,“24 Frames,” one of those sometime overlooked songs that’s actually full of those great lyric lines most people can only hope to write, lines like “this is how you make yourself vanish into nothing,” and “this is how you make yourself closer to your brother, remember him back when he was small enough to help you sing.” A big bold “Anxiety” then roused both the crowd and the band, with Isbell crossing the stage to reengage in playful antics with Shires on her fiddle. And then he grounded our joy with “White Man’s World” to remind us again of our sordid past.
The night continued through a set list the crowd clearly loved, with Isbell introducing the band members individually, like family, emphasizing the hometown where each one grew up, between songs. “Jimbo Hart from Sheffield Alabama on bass; Sadler Vaden from North Carolina; Chad Gamble from Tuscumbia, Alabama on drums,” and then: “Baltimore’s own Derry DeBorja on keys and accordion,“ to a round of hometown applause. “Codeine” was light and lively with accordion and fiddle and the band was dancing merrily across the stage and back; Isbell pulled out the V guitar (the one he got for his birthday, he said on Twitter) for “Flying Over Water.” “Cover Me Up,” his fans’ dearly beloved mantra and a powerful love song, featured big bold tom-tom drum beats commandeering our own heartbeats.
“Thanks to James McMurtry, one of the best songwriters in the whole wide world; I’ve learned a lot from listening to his songs,” he said, with applause raising the roof.
For the encore, there was a power rock “Never Gonna Change” with extended jam interplay between Isbell and Vaden that had the whole house up on its feet (settling the sit/stand controversy once and for all) with the light show looking like fireworks on the 4th of July. And then he bid us goodnight with his heart wrenching recent Grammy Award winner, “Vampires.”
It was one of those nights you think back on over and over and remember. Thanks to these iconic musicians for providing such a treasured experience.
To read more about James McMurtry’s goings-on, look here.
For Jason Isbell info, read here.