Jason Isbell with Waxahatchee at Wolf Trap 9/14
In some circles, Jason Isbell has been at the center of controversy over his approach to live shows in the age of COVID. While Isbell’s no apologies approach has likely led him to lose some fans, you could not tell by the size of the crowd at Tuesday’s show at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts.
Some scattered seats under the roof were available, but the lawn was packed on a humid late summer evening that saw Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, perform 21 songs in an almost two-hour show. And the audience, which had to take part in vaccine checks prior to entering the venue, got their money’s worth.
Following an outstanding opener, Waxahatchee (more on them later), Isbell started the show with “Overseas” and “What Have I Done to Help,” two songs from his 2020 album, Reunions. Throughout the evening, he performed six tracks from the album, which the audience had not been able to hear live due to COVID, and all held their own with other classics from his catalogue.
While there were a number of individual highlights, including Sadler Vaden’s second lead work on “What Have I Done to Help,” the strongest moments for me were in the middle. The “Reunions” songs stood out, with “It Gets Easier,” “Letting You Go,” and “Be Afraid” standing alongside “Super 8” (always a live highlight), the beautiful “Only Children,” a sublime “Last of My Kind,” the evening’s lone cover (“Driver 8,” from Isbell’s forthcoming charity album, Georgia Blue) and “If We Were Vampires.”
It felt strange hearing “Vampires” without Amanda Shires, who is recovering from an emergency medical procedure she had in Texas. But it was fun to see Isbell talk at various points about how much he is enjoying performing again live during this time of uncertainty. And you could sense the palpable relief of audience members who were just glad to be there.
Consider me one of them. This was my first show to shoot and review since late February 2020, when I covered Isbell’s first band, the Drive-by Truckers, at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. I’m looking forward to many more shows in the near future, including Shoals Fest next month in Alabama, where I’ll see both bands again.
Find more Jason Isbell information here: https://www.jasonisbell.com
Having seen Isbell numerous times over the years, I’ve also learned to appreciate the opening acts he brings out on tour. Earlier this week, I had a playlist full of them: Anderson East, James McMurtry, The McCrary Sisters, North Mississippi All-Stars, Sturgill Simpson, and Chris Stapleton, among others.
Add Waxahatchee to the list.
Formed by songwriter Katie Crutchfield, who was backed by members of the Detroit-based indie folk group Bonny Doon, Waxahatchee is touring behind its critically acclaimed 2020 album, Saint Cloud. Largely written about Crutchfield’s decision to get sober, album opener “Oxbow” started the five-piece group’s 45-minute set.
Nine of the 12 songs came from the album, with the group’s embrace of twang and roots coming through clearly. Highlights were “The Eye” and “Hell,” with the loping and rolling vibe of the chorus (“I put you through hell”) drawing some of the largest applause of the night. Guitarist Bobby Colombo also took lead vocals for the Bonny Doon song, “Long Wave,” with Crutchfield harmonizing on the chorus (“You aren’t even supposed to be…”)
Crutchfield dipped into her distant past twice, for the beautiful and haunting “Chapel of Pines” (from the short-lived group Great Thunder) and the ethereal “Recite Remorse” from Waxahatchee’s 2017 album, “Out in the Storm.”
Waxahatchee opened only once for Isbell, who has a rotating cast of artists supporting him on this first leg of a tour that will run through 2022. And while opening acts often can’t fill the space of a large arena, they provided a full sound in the at-times cavernous Wolf Trap. I can’t wait to see what they do next.
Find more information here: https://www.waxahatchee.com