Jason Isbell at Red Rocks with Waxahatchee
Several years ago, as our kids started to leave the nest, my wife and I began to look at life’s next chapter. We knew we wanted to downsize and leave the suburbs. We knew we wanted to travel. And I knew I wanted to see — and photograph — as many concerts in as many places as possible.
Our tastes in music are different, so finding a way to combine travel and live music presented the challenge of finding someone we both liked and would enjoy seeing in new places. Fortunately, I took her to a Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit show and she was hooked.
Since 2017, we’ve seen Isbell and his band at the Ryman Auditorium, in Durham, N.C., and at Wolf Trap in Virginia. We’ve seen him play acoustically with Amanda Shires at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville and at a benefit in Washington, D.C. At the Innings Festival in 2019, we even watched Eddie Vedder — another of my wife’s favorites — perform Isbell’s “Maybe It’s Time” during his set.
While I still have many bucket list places to see shows, the place we both wanted to go was Red Rocks Amphitheatre, the beautiful venue outside Denver. Given Jill missed ShoalsFest last fall due to a minor back injury and had not seen Isbell’s band since his 2019 Ryman residency, a trip to Red Rocks made sense for our first airline flight together in 28 months.
And the show, the first of a two-night stint last Tuesday, did not disappoint, despite chilly temperatures and a cold mist that turned into a full storm during Isbell’s encore.
Waxahatchee opened with a 16-song set that included nine cuts from the group’s acclaimed 2020 album Saint Cloud, which was largely written about leader Katie Crutchfield’s decision to get sober.
Crutchfield played several songs from other albums — two from the short-lived group Great Thunder as well as “La Loose” from the group’s 2015 debut Ivy Tripp and “Recite Remorse” from 2017’s Out in the Storm. She also shined on three covers — “Why Not Me,” a lovely tribute to Naomi Judd; Lucinda Williams’ “Fruits of My Labor,” and set closer “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” by Dolly Parton.
But it was the “Saint Cloud” songs that showed the strength of the band, which I saw solo last summer when they opened for Isbell at Wolf Trap. Highlights were “The Eye,” “Hell,” “Fire,” and the title track.
As twilight turned into dark, Isbell came on stage with Shires — who made her return to the group for the Red Rocks shows after being away while recording two albums — and the rest of his band. Despite the chill in the air, Isbell and the 400 Unit were on fire throughout the 18-song set, one third of which was devoted to the 2020 album “Reunions.”
The group performed three songs from the 2021 covers album Georgia Blue, with Shires providing lead vocals on Cat Power’s “Cross Bones Style” and guitarist Sadler Vaden singing Drivin’ n’ Cryin’s “Honeysuckle Blue.” Isbell took the lead on “Driver 8” by R.E.M.
It was interesting watching this show with my spouse, who had not seen the Reunions or Georgia Blue songs performed live. She sang along and nodded to “Hope the High Road” (from 2018’s The Nashville Sound) and “Be Afraid,” became wistful during “If We Were Vampires,” and put her hands to her chest as the rain started to fall during pre-encore closer “Cover Me Up,” which remains a highlight even after seeing Isbell a dozen times.
Before our flight home the next day, we talked about seeing more shows together. Our next out-of-town concert is in September, when we’re going on a pandemic-postponed Pearl Jam road trip to Oklahoma City.
After that, who knows where the next Jason Isbell show will take us. I’m sure it will be somewhere fun.