As has been proven time and again over the past few years by both critics and charts, Jason Isbell’s star is on the rise. In October, he sold out four nights at Ryman Auditorium, so to catch one of his two (also sold-out) performances at the much-smaller City Winery was a rare treat. The scaled-back setting afforded Isbell a casual looseness that isn’t present in the roomier, boomier venues. To fill the space, he not only used his songs, but his wit, as well, telling hilarious stories about himself and his wife, singer/songwriter/fiddler Amanda Shires. (After delivering a knock-out version of “Cover Me Up,” he explained how he wrote — and played — it for her before they were married and realized that, if she didn’t like it, she’d let him know in no uncertain terms and that would be that: “She’s not capable of hiding a cringe. If she doesn’t want to be in a conversation, she just walks away.”)
The set list covered familiar ground from throughout Isbell’s career, with all the usual suspects — “Different Days,” “24 Frames,” “Alabama Pines,” “Something More Than Free,” “Live Oak,” “Dress Blues,” and more — making appearances. To hear these stark confessionals with nothing to hide behind other than his guitar and her fiddle felt almost like eavesdropping on the post-writing sessions when he first played them for her… except for the fact that the two of them were so thoroughly in sync, musically, that well-worn songs like “Elephant” found new paths to roam as Shires’ haunting fiddle expanded from one-note accents to a full-on solo.
After working through the bulk of the set as just a duo, Isbell and Shires were joined by what my table mate dubbed “the 200 Unit” — Derry DeBorja (accordion) and Sadler Vaden (guitar). As soon as Shires laid down the melody of “Codeine,” the crowd erupted in cheers. The group went on to work through “Hudson Commodore” and, of course, “Outfit,” and it was total pleasure to hear Vaden tear it up an acoustic guitar for a change of pace. For the encore, Isbell and Shires offered up two musical bookends — which also happen to be two of Isbell’s finest efforts — “Traveling Alone” and “Flagship.”
Shires also opened the night with a batch of tunes culled from her own delightful discography, including “Bulletproof,” “Swimmer…,” “The Drop and Lift,” and others. Marveling at and reveling in the quietude of the room between songs, she remarked, “We have this baby at the house. It’s our baby. She’s growing teeth like a shark and is not quiet.” As she dedicated “Mineral Wells” to her father who’d driven up from Texas for the show, she talked about how she’d moved to Nashville to pursue her “lifelong dream of being a waitress.” But, she was “terrible at it.” Then, as soon as she started the song, someone on the wait staff dropped some dishes. Without missing a beat, Shires exclaimed, “Put that anywhere!” The audience roared with laughter. She chuckled, adding, “Are you a songwriter like me?”
To prove that she, too, is no slouch when it comes to songwriting, Shires closed her set with what was, presumably, a new tune that was as affecting as anything of the evening. With a chorus of “you are my home,” the lyrics made the point poignantly and precisely: “Anywhere that you breathe is where I believe that I’m meant to be.”
Taken as a whole, the evening summed up what Americana is all about — love, music, and the love of music.