[Review] Jason Isbell at St. Augustine: A Natural Setting for a Natural Poet

Photo via Jason Isbell’s Facebook

Jason Isbell has long been known for his songwriting abilities. His days writing and performing with the Drive-By Truckers personified his ability to write songs with strong, thought-provoking lyrical content, while maintaining a raw and emotional edge to the sonic landscape. More recently, as he’s ventured into solo territory, his music has mellowed, but his songwriting seems to have become more focused and poignant than ever before.

As Jason Isbell ventured out on his own as a solo singer-songwriter, he seemed to take a momentary breath before taking the music world by storm. He’s won two Grammy awards and multiple Americana music awards, earning him the title of ‘King of Americana.’ Everything from politics to personal demons highlight the lyrical content. And, while I’ve listened to his albums at length, I’ve never had the opportunity to see him live. So, when I heard he was coming back to St. Augustine Amphitheatre, I jumped at the opportunity to finally hear what Isbell had to offer in an amazing concert setting.

For several months leading up to the show, there was a palpable anticipation building. My friends and I messaged each other periodically, never allowing that excitement to settle. Several of us met for dinner and drinks pre-show – if you’ve never been to The Floridian, I highly recommend it – where Isbell’s carefully crafted songs were the topic of conversation through much of the meal. I’m a huge fan of lots of different kinds of music. And I have many friends who take their music just as seriously, and we often critique shows we’ve seen together. Leading up to the day of the show, every time I mentioned where I was going, I was met with overwhelming praise for Isbell as a performer, as well as his music. It was clear to me that he had some HUGE shoes to fill.

Strand-of-Oaks-Strand photo cred: Mike Gerry
Photo cred: Mike Gerry

We arrived at the amphitheatre with just enough time to grab a drink before Strand of Oaks started. Given all that I knew about Jason Isbell, I had no doubt his selection for an opening act would be the perfect primer for what was in store for us for the evening. One of the overlooked features of the St. Augustine Amphitheatre is its beautiful natural surroundings. For this show, Mother Nature put on her “fancy” dress. Along with a spectacular, multi-hued sunset, an evening mist descended upon the crowd. And this spectacle wasn’t lost on anyone, including the performers. Strand Of Oaks frontman, Tim Showalter, commented that he felt like he was “in a Jurassic Park movie.” It really didn’t feel like an exaggeration, either.

There was an undeniable pop sensibility, a light airiness to their songs, with an underpinning of raw emotion about love, nostalgia, and the healing power of music. For example, “Radio Kids” looks to remind those of us who grew up on the FM dial what it was like to hear your favorite song, scream at the top of your lungs, or discover something altogether brand new. One of my frequent concert buddies, Sara, really seemed to nail their sound when she connected them to U2. I overheard others liken them to The Replacements and even a little Velvet Underground. To be fair though, they’ve really curated their own sound, which judging from crowd response, seems to be working well.

favorite concert:church-goer
During the stage re-set, we noticed our amphitheater mascot and favorite concert/church-goer, perched atop the guide wires of the amphitheatre tent tops. Stay tuned for future fish hawk sightings. Photo cred: Garth Solburg

Then it was time for the main attraction. As with much of his songwriting, it didn’t take long for Isbell to get to the heart of the matter. Starting with “Hope the High Road,” a song that seems to speak to the frustrations present in a large swath of America today. One of his most telling signs of growth are the ways in which his songs seem to speak to an even larger audience than before. In his own words, he grew up blue collar, in a family from Northern Alabama. Accordingly, much of his early songwriting revolved around him, his troubles, and the people he knew and loved. This newest incantation of Isbell finds him stretching his audience as well as songwriting, both in content and scope.

Photo cred: Erika Goldring/Getty

Life events, such as marriage, the birth of a child, and even domestic bliss find themselves side-by-side with obvious political diatribes. Songs like “White Man’s World”, for example, delve into the emotions and situations he felt and witnessed while growing up striking distance from poverty, yet still aware of his inherent privileges. A song which serves to analyze the changing times and the struggles felt as well as inflicted. In a poignant turn, Isbell and his wife harmonize together on this song. A song which, in part, is about their young child and her impending future.

Other songs, such as “Cumberland Gap,” tend to be more general about the struggles faced every day by all types of Americans. Originally referring to the often impoverished citizens of the Appalachians, Isbell also cites the struggles and turmoils of the single mother, the mid-western farmer, or even your neighbor down the street.

Equally as impressive as the lyrics, his band, The 400 Unit, deftly ebbs and flows through the swirling melodies, a constant companion to his masterful narratives. Particularly engaging was the interplay between Isbell and his wife, Amanda Shires, who shines on the fiddle.

Photo via Jason Isbell’s Facebook

In an homage to his Southern Rock roots, he closed out the show with an Allman Brothers favorite, “Whipping Post.” The energy and angst of a broken man’s soul as displayed in this song fit perfectly with the passion and emotion Isbell cultivated throughout the night. A fitting end to an incredible night of music.

As usual, the volunteers and staff at the St. Augustine Amphitheatre were more than generous and accepting of the loyal and regular patrons of their venue. Everything from greeting you with a courteous smile to wiping down rain-soaked seats. They truly understand and respect the concert-goer’s experience.

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