Jason Isbell is man of few words onstage, but that’s what makes his live performance so damn good: He lets the music do the talking. (Hey, it worked for Dylan and Cash.)
Isbell, who left his post as one of the frontmen of the Drive-By Truckers last April, has been touring and promoting his soulful solo debut, Sirens of the Ditch, released in July on New West, pretty much nonstop since. His February 21 gig at the Bowery Ballroom -- his second stop at the venue in the last six months -- showcased Isbell’s modest, good-old-boy charm and superb songwriting talents.
Isbell was decidedly more laid-back this time around (perhaps a little road-weary?), and the overall energy level didn’t pack as big of a punch, but it was still one hell of a show. “We’re glad to be back in New York and, well, we hope you like it,” was the only introduction he gave, and that was really all that was needed. Unlike Drive-by Truckers' signature storytelling rock operas, most the songs on Sirens of the Ditch are bluesy hook-laden gems that translate even better live. Isbell’s syrupy drawl is unforgettable, and his awesome Manuel-inspired embroidered shirt was, thankfully, an unironic nod to his Southern roots.
Throughout the night, Isbell gave loads of credit to his band, the 400 Unit, including a proper shout-out to replacement drummer Dave Bryson of Son Volt). After a mid-set shot of Jack Daniels with the band, Isbell loosened up a bit, throwing his head back and grinning as he feverishly played guitar. A deep-fried rendition of Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” was a pleasant diversion and more than made up for the fact that a handful of the most sing-along worthy tracks from the album, “Hurricanes and Hand Grenades,” “Dress Blues,” and “Outfit” didn’t make the set list.
Highlights included the piano-driven ballad “Chicago Promenade” and one of Isbell’s token DBT credits, “Decoration Day” that featured an especially jammed-out guitar solo. The encore? A cover of Tom Petty’s “I Don’t Wanna Fight” (along with Will Hoge) and a kick-ass finale of the album’s rocking “Never Gonna Change.”
Opener Will Hoge, with his cocky, slack-jawed banter and drunkenly squealing (read: swooning) female fans, kind of stole mellowed-out Isbell’s thunder in the stage-presence department. You have to give Hoge credit. He’s a born showman. He certainly knows his audience and he panders to it like a pro. “Do people yell at you like that when you’re workin’ at the Gap?” he ribbed one particularly persistent fan who incoherently yelled out to him between songs.
Hoge’s got a solid, (though somewhat generic) formula for memorable performances: stroking the neck of his Stratocaster, expertly making out with his harmonica and engaging in long, soulful a capella sessions to showcase his bluesy crooning during saccharinely ballads. And he delivers it well -- if choreographed bandmate introductions are your kind if thing. Hoge’s straightforward Americana appeal and signature scruffy style complement his Springsteenian rasp, Nashville twang, and tiresome skip-around stage antics.
Halfway through the set, Hoge admitted he was having a bad day, explaining that the band’s tour bus was stolen the night before, but it certainly didn’t put a damper on the show, which was at times both roadhouse rowdy and surprisingly affectionate. Tracks from 2007’s Draw the Curtains (Rykodisc), including the raunchier “Sex, Lies and Money,” dominated the set that finished with anthem song “The Highway’s Home.”
Kentucky-bred, New York-based folk chanteuse Dawn Landes started the night off with a short, sweet set of cute little pop songs from 2008’s Fire Proof (Cooking Vinyl). Landes, who’s already made a successful career as a recording engineer for Hem, Ryan Adams, and Philip Glass, offers up a catchy, quirky sound and coy vocals that somehow channel both Edie Brickell and Liz Phair -- with a Southern flair, of course.