Words by Ariana Igneri | Photos by John Wiley
“I recently heard this story about a 19-year old kid from my home state who set 90 bails of hay on fire,” said Jason Isbell, a Grammy award-winning singer-songwriter from Alabama, during his concert at Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, New Jersey, on Friday night.
“There isn’t much to do in Alabama. That’s why so many great musicians come from there,” Isbell continued — the audience still cheering for “Alabama Pines,” which Isbell had finished performing just moments earlier.
“I guess you either learn how to play or you end up burning hay,” he said.
Fortunately, Isbell chose the former.
Isbell’s strength, as a musician and as a performer, lies in his ability to weave together vivid details to create and convey captivating narratives. He’s a natural storyteller.
“So girl leave your boots by the bed / We ain’t leaving this room / ’Til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom,” Isbell sang during his performance of “Cover Me Up,” a haunting, intimate ballad, which he wrote for his wife, the violinist Amanda Shires. As the song progressed, another guitarist and, eventually, a drummer joined Isbell, who strummed through the first chorus alone in a white spotlight. The instrumentals of Isbell’s band, The 400 Unit, came into the song like distinct voices in a story, complementing Isbell’s crooning vocals and building up to a powerful crescendo that had the crowd out of its seats and on its feet in applause, as Isbell sang a verse about how his wife helped him get sober.
Isbell played for two hours straight, including an encore duet with Josh Ritter, who opened the night with an energetic performance of his single, “Getting Ready to Get Down.” Older songs from Isbell’s time with the band Drive by Truckers, as well as newer fan favorites from his most recent solo albums, “Something More Than Free” and “Southeastern,” all made the set list, which included “24 Frames,” “Stockholm” and “Traveling Alone” — a song that reminded Isbell of the time he met New Jersey music icon Bruce Springsteen at a local jazz festival.
“When I told him who I was he started singing ‘Traveling Alone,’” Isbell said, imitating his interaction with Springsteen. “I just stood there and tried not to freak out.”
“I don’t usually tell this story, but I figured I should since I’m in Jersey,” he said.
The crowd responded with a cheer — glad that he had.
TheWaster.com | The Basie