Jason Isbell has been through a lot since his first few solo outings at Milwaukee’s Shank Hall nearly a decade ago. After being kicked out of the seminal alt-country band Drive-By Truckers—allegedly due to troubles with alcohol—the Americana singer-songwriter has been to rehab, sobered up, grown up, and, oh yeah, wracked up a couple Grammy awards just over a week ago to place on his now-overcrowded mantel.
After accepting those awards (Best Americana Album for 2015’s Something More Than Free and Best American Roots Song for its single “24 Frames”) his Tuesday night Pabst Theater show quickly sold out. Word had spread, his album had appeared on a number of “Best-of-2015” lists, and enough press had been published to garner attention from even those who don’t especially consider themselves alt-country experts. Isbell always had a knack for tapping into the blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth stories that tug at American heartstrings, but there’s something in his matured storytelling that makes for a more nuanced touchstone above the rollicking, whiskey-soaked romps of his yesteryear.
Maybe it’s the help of his wife, fiddler Amanda Shires, who appeared as a rare addition to Isbell’s backing band, the 400 Unit, at the Pabst on Tuesday. On the night of their third wedding anniversary, Shires and Isbell were posted up next to each other, exchanging loving smiles and transcendent harmonies throughout the 100-minute set. “We’ve played a show on every important holiday as a couple,” Isbell joked. “Birthdays, Valentine’s Day, our anniversary…what do you think that means?” Shires, shy to answer at first, took her time to respond after a couple songs and a little consideration, saying “I think maybe this is what we’re supposed to be doing together.” Cue the flood of “awwws” from all corners of the room.
While Isbell may wear his own heart on his sleeve, he’s got plenty of others residing there, too. His lyrics weave a tapestry that narrate heartbreaking, life-affirming, melancholic tales and paint landscapes in familiar dusty-road towns where everyday starts make way for heart-wrecked endings. And those stories came to life on stage before the sold-out theater. Backed by his longtime band, Isbell’s rough tenor rang bristled-but-clear, purposefully narrating each tale from the foot-stomping, bluesy “Palmetto Rose” opener to motivational Grammy-winner “24 Frames” to the genuine tearjerkers “Dress Blues” and “Children of Children,” which closed the show proper.
All the while, the bandleader’s musicianship shone through with bluesy riffs and weepy slide-guitar solos that quieted the crowd before ultimately bringing them to their feet. And then there was “Cover Me Up,” the emotional love song written for wife Amanda before they’d married. “I was so scared to play it for her, ’cause I knew she wouldn’t put up with a shitty song,” Isbell smilingly said on stage. There was nothing to fear—each tier of the Pabst was hushed as Isbell’s voice teetered between a scuffed and velveteen cry that soared and fluttered its way across the room. Between their achingly sweet love song, the weary, lovesick “Traveling Alone,” a gorgeous, stripped-down rendition of Warren Zevon’s “Mutineer,” and heartstrong encore opener “Flagship,” it was a venerable love story played out onstage. Why wouldn’t it be on the couple’s special night? They lifted and lilted gracefully in a soaring and sweet set that perfectly illustrated why Isbell’s musicianship, story-crafting, and down-home humility have—after a tenuous crawl up from the cellar—proven why he should be considered one of contemporary music’s finest songwriters.