Jason Isbell Shines in a Special Acoustic Evening at the Disney Hall In a stunning, stripped-down set, Jason Isbell reminds us his songwriting is every bit as compelling without a full band
LOS ANGELES, CA- Jason Isbell took the stage at the Walt Disney Hall last week to perform a special acoustic set, and to call it “special” hardly scratches the surface.
The four-time Grammy winner took a tour through most tracks a fan would hope to hear from his solo career as well as his work with the 400 Unit. On this night, though, he was flanked only by Amanda Shires, his wife, 400 Unit band member, Highwoman and artistic equal — her fiddle stole the show more than once, the hair of her violin bow coming loose with the intensity of her solo during “White Man’s World.” She also performed one of her strongest solo tracks, “Parking Lot Pirouette.”
Their interplay warmed hearts throughout the night, from the smiles they traded to the way Isbell would turn to sing right to Shires whenever he delivered lines like “I’ve grown tired of traveling alone / Won’t you ride with me?” during “Traveling Alone” or “Volunteer to lose touch with the world / And focus on one solitary girl” during “Flagship.”
Their banter kept things light, as well, with the two debating whether she was playing a fiddle or violin — “It’s a fiddle when you buy it and a violin when you sell it, right?” — and Shires telling one of their 4-year-old daughter’s knock-knock jokes while Isbell tuned one of his Martin signature guitars. When Shires briefly left the stage, he looked for an opportunity to play songs she hates.
“That’s my cue to play Steely Dan,” he joked in his Greenhill, Alabama, drawl. “My wife does not like Steely Dan. That’s OK. In a relationship, you don’t have to like all the same things. She also does not like peanut butter. That one’s fucked up.”
Without the mighty presence of the 400 Unit, the night’s spare arrangements narrowed the focus to Isbell’s songwriting, which remains airtight with or without a band beside him. Shires’ fiddle took on melodies that may have been an electric guitar solo, and her harmonies lifted his steady vocals. It was tempting to miss the 400 Unit, but that feeling never surpassed the one that said a show like this wouldn’t pass this way again soon.
Isbell has always been an adept, deeply personal storyteller, even when the stories aren’t his own; it’s no wonder he was among the artists asked to pen a song for Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born. Elevated by a knack for poetic detail and striking honesty — both painful and joyful — songs such as “Elephant,” which tells the story of a man named Andy who fell in love with a woman with cancer, felt all the more affecting in this setting.
He covered Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” — one of their daughter’s current favorite bedtime songs, which, to us, earns him a few extra Cool Parent Points — and performed three new tracks from his upcoming album. He wrote one of those tracks for Shires in the wake of a friend’s suicide, figuring out how best to support her during a terrible time. Writing a song, he said, is what he knows how to do. “I haven’t played it yet, so I might forget it or start crying,” he said before he began.
“What can I do to make you laugh?” he sang. “What can I do to help you sleep?” “Maybe he could make you laugh / Bring St. Peter’s autograph.”
But the songs that tell his own stories can’t help but carry the most weight. Isbell ended the encore with a track he wrote for Shires before they were together, “Cover Me Up,” a song so devastating and melodic that if Isbell only ever wrote one song in his entire career, he’d still be worth remembering. Except: He’d just ended the main set a few minutes earlier with “If We Were Vampires,” a song that hits that mark, too, if the crowd’s reaction was any indication. Amid waves of applause, Isbell, as understated and unassuming as he is clever, just seemed glad to share the stage with Shires.
2018’s Live from the Ryman is an essential entry in the Jason Isbell discography, a tour de force backed by the 400 Unit and recorded in the Mother Church of Country Music. We can only hope that a recording of this Disney Hall performance will appear as an equally essential companion piece that solidifies Isbell as the flagship of the fleet, indeed: no less exciting for a lack of instrumentation and, thanks to an assist from the hall’s stunning acoustics, about as powerful as a pared-down performer can be.