It is the #1 goal of this outlet and especially for myself in 2018 to see and discuss more live shows. We stress the importance of albums, but in this streaming age, it’s arguably even more vital to go out and support our favorite artists through ticket sales and buying merchandise. Plus, seeing a live performance often provides a new appreciation for an artist you may already love, and it can also make us fans of artists whose studio recordings we don’t necessarily enjoy.
Both of these things happened for me on Thursday night, (Jan. 4th), at the Criterion in Oklahoma City, where I saw James McMurtry and Jason Isbell. Mostly, I’ll keep this focused on Isbell, but I’ll say this about McMurtry–here’s an independent/Americana artist I have respected but never really gotten into in the past. Seeing him live made me understand exactly what people like about his music. Honestly, he’s a better vocalist live than his studio recordings would have us believe, and I enjoyed quite a lot of these songs. It’s a testament to the value of live music in general, and why we shouldn’t pass judgment on an artist solely on the basis of their recorded material.
As for Jason Isbell, I’m not sure I can put into words his ability to interpret a lyric–and not only that, but to take a heartbreaking tear-jerker of a song like “Speed Trap Town” and make it work in a live setting with people singing along to it. He proves that you don’t have to be singing happy, fun songs live to move an audience, or even to leave an audience feeling happier and carefree when you’re done. And my apologies to the song “Anxiety,” a track which I underrated considerably on Isbell’s latest record. Granted, I still prefer the live version, but hearing Jason’s live version makes the studio version all the more authentic and believable. On the record, it’s hard to tell how much of the song is personal to Jason and how much of it is just him writing about this issue for other people; when he comes out and opens a show with a song like this, with all his heart and soul in the words, with all the hopes of bonding with the crowd hinged on that song of desperation and depression, you know it means something to him. He doesn’t come out singing something content, or even something like “Cumberland Gap,” an admittedly emotional song but one which at least is rocking and fun. Instead, he comes out with “Anxiety” and leaves the listener with no illusions about what this is going to be.
And that’s why, when you get to “Speed Trap Town” and all the other songs like it in Jason Isbell’s catalog not necessarily “suited” for such things as live shows, you damn well pay attention. “Last of my Kind” cuts even more in a live setting, and “Hope the High road,” though I still don’t enjoy that song, is more convincing. And you’d have to be a fool to do “If we Were Vampires,” a song about death and treasuring every moment with the one you love as if it were your last, as an encore of all things, but Jason Isbell can, and did.
And all of that works because he sings with such conviction that you feel whatever emotion he’s conveying, and that’s the beauty in live music, and music in general, and what makes Jason Isbell able to connect with so many people and his music able to be classified in so many genres. He just sings what he feels, and the results are proving to be timeless, as he’s becoming the face of independent music and a voice for this insurgency in the mainstream by music of substance and quality. This is exactly the kind of artist you should make it a point to see live even if you’re not really an Isbell fan because he embodies what is unique and beautiful about the experience of sharing live music. And if you’re not really an Isbell fan, don’t worry–after seeing him live, you certainly will be.
Best Live Songs: “Anxiety,” “Tupelo,” “Last of my Kind”