Jason Isbell at Wolf Trap with SG Goodman
Years ago, Steve Earle had an infamous quote: “Townes Van Zandt is the best damn songwriter in the world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my boots and say that.”
I don’t own cowboy boots, and I don’t know where any of Dylan’s coffee tables are (assuming he has several), but I respectfully disagree with Mr. Earle.
In my view, Jason Isbell is the best damn songwriter in the world right now, as evidenced by Weathervanes, his ninth studio album released last month, and by the shows he’s currently performing with an expanded 400 Unit.
On Wednesday night, Isbell and his band made their annual summer stop at the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, where they devoted almost half of the 19-song set to Weathervanes.
Four of the concert’s first five songs — “Save the World,” “King of Oklahoma,” “Death Wish,” and “Strawberry Woman” — and nine in all came from the new album, which Isbell produced himself after a long partnership with Dave Cobb. In the wake of 2020’s troubled “Reunions,” the making of which was chronicled in the HBO documentary “Running with Our Eyes Closed,” Isbell has said in interviews that he wanted to produce a record that captured the 400 Unit’s often heavier live sound.
And he has succeeded — masterfully. Every member of the 400 Unit shined at points during the show, especially core members Sadler Vaden, Derry DeBorja and Chad Gamble. Will Johnson (of Centromatic) on drums and guitar and fill-in bass player Dominic Davis (subbing for missed Jimbo Hart) added muscle to the lineup.
DeBorja shined on accordion during a lovely “Strawberry Woman” and again on keys on the heartbreaking “Elephant,” one of three songs from Isbell’s breakthrough album, “Southeastern,” which marks its 10th anniversary this year. (Isbell mentioned that he is planning a series of events, including a reported live album, to mark the milestone later this year.)
Vaden, alternating between electric, slide and acoustic guitar, received similar showcases on an extended, free-verse jazz-like jam version of “Last of My Kind” and on vocals during his crowd-favorite cover of Drivin’ ‘n Cryin’s “Honeysuckle Blue.”
The show ended with “Cover Me Up,” the standard — in more ways than one — closer before a three-song encore of “24 Frames,” “If We Were Vampires,” and “This Ain’t It,” perhaps my favorite track from “Weathervanes.” Listening to the album on the day it dropped, I knew that had the potential to be the show closer, and it totally fit the bill.
This leg of Isbell’s tour runs through next weekend with S.G. Goodman and her band opening the show. Goodman’s six-song set, a mix of Kentucky twang with garage rock and Velvet Underground vibes, felt too short, although her sense of humor was in great form. She asked the audience to follow her on social media, noting that “I’m legally obligated to ask that with a crowd this large,” and told a story of one of her bandmates recommending they get a sandwich from a Tennessee diner that is owned by a cult.
Find the music and tour dates here: http://www.jasonisbell.com
Enoy our previous coverage here: REVIEW: Jason Isbell “Weathervanes”
Goodman’s set showcased three songs from her first album and two from her second, with a fun cover of Waylon Jennings’ “Waymore’s Blues” closing out her set. I would have enjoyed hearing more, but had the sense she appeared to know Isbell and the 400 Unit were waiting in the wings and the crowd was ready.
And, from what I could see, no one in the packed house was disappointed. I’d be willing to stand on someone’s coffee table and say that, too.
Find SG Goodman info here: http://www.sggoodman.net
Enjoy our previous coverage here: REVIEW: S. G. Goodman “Teeth Marks”