Most sold-out shows at First Avenue have fans bouncing along happily to the songs or singing out the choruses to the hits, which is always a treat. But few concerts there display the kind of personal, emotional connection on display during Alabama songwriter Jason Isbell’s gig Saturday night.
Instead of just the hits — which in Isbell’s case are songs he wrote a decade ago with the Drive-by Truckers — Saturday’s sold-out crowd sang along animatedly and uninhibitedly to all 10 of the songs from last year’s redemptive album “Southeastern.”
And these weren’t easily excitable young fans, but dudes in beards and flannel who shook their heads in awe to the best lyrics and middle-aged women who sighed like teenage girls at the most romantic lines. And the songs were not light, catchy tunes, but ones about a friend dying of cancer, sexual abuse and a battle with addictions that nearly ends at — of all of God’s forsaken places — a Super 8 motel.
Having already bared the pain and struggle of achieving sobriety while writing “Southeastern,” Isbell lightheartedly shrugged off the power he wielded Saturday. Before delivering the acoustic epic “Elephant,” he made a halfhearted apology about singing so many sad songs.
“I guarantee you the people writing the happy songs are some of the saddest [sacks] you’ll ever meet,” he said.
It takes a lot of mojo to get a standing-room rock club like First Avenue to quiet down and listen intently — especially given the level of beer sales Saturday night — but “Elephant” did that in spades with lines like this: “When she was drunk she made cancer jokes / She made up her own doctor’s notes / Surrounded by her family, I saw that she was dying alone.”
He also mesmerized the crowd with “Cover Me Up,” one of several instances where his deep, soulful tenor voice sounded as dramatic as his writing. The song at once addresses his cold-turkey struggles and the warm happy ending he stumbled into with his new wife.
Isbell’s spouse, Texan singer/violinist Amanda Shires, was by his side all night. She seemed as much of a sentimental beacon as a musical lightning rod for the show, her violin fills adding spark to “Southeastern’s” hopeful closer “Relatively Easy” and the older tune “Codeine.” To kick off the encore, the couple pulled out a duet of Warren Zevon’s “Mutineer,” a near-perfect match to the night’s rocky-boat set list.
Isbell’s refined roadhouse band, the 400 Unit, remains vital to his concerts even as his songs have turned more intimate. As was the case at their Varsity Theater show in October, they waded through older songs to start the nearly two-hour show. After the tentative opener “Streetlights” and a stormy “Go It Alone,” they got things rolling full-steam with the Drive-by Truckers favorite “Decoration Day.” They wheeled out one other DBT tune, “Outfit,” for the encore before a wild and blistering “Super 8.”
Reflecting back on his many times playing First Ave with the Truckers, Isbell said before the finale, “I’ve played here 10 times over the years, and tonight’s show is my favorite.” Flashing the “vandal smile” he referenced earlier in “Relatively Easy,” he added, “And best of all, I can’t remember my least-favorite.”
Just another reason Saturday’s was an unforgettable one.
Houston countryman Robert Ellis was similarly impressive as both a songwriter and bandleader in his opening set. Sounding like a more honky-tonky Calexico, he and his five-piece band wrapped dusty, land-swept arrangements around crestfallen originals such as “Only Lies.” Their most straight-ahead twang track was ironically a crazy-good cover of Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years.”