Jason Isbell’s new album, “Southeastern,” is a low-key affair that, even when it tries to rock, feels restrained. The Alabama singer-songwriter’s show Tuesday night at a packed Neumos was anything but, with he and his killer band elevating their new material past the trap of mid-tempo singer-songwriter doldrums.
Isbell got his energetic set started with “Flying Over Water,” just one of numerous cuts off his new album that sounded more dynamic live. It wasn’t just the new songs that got a rocking revision propelled by drummer Chad Gamble’s insistent beats. Numbers like “Go It Alone,” off Isbell’s 2011 album, “Here We Rest,” benefited from Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, letting loose as well.
Isbell told me in an interview last week that in the studio he is a perfectionist and will constantly tinker with a song to get it sounding perfect. It’s an admirable trait and makes for some really polished alt-country music with a singer-songwriter bent. It also leaves his albums, especially his earlier solo work, feeling a little too shiny at times, especially given the heavy material Isbell usually deals with.
On Tuesday, Isbell’s rich, melancholy voice found the right balance with the band’s dual electric guitar attack, though it was on the few slower, quieter songs where it became apparent just what a good singer he is. “Cover Me Up” and “Elephant,” both from “Southeastern,” stood out the most, with Isbell commanding rapt attention with his cries of sorrow, pain and regret.
“Cover Me Up” deals partially with Isbell’s past alcohol abuse and when he sang the lyric, “I sobered up/and swore off that stuff/forever this time,” he shared a small moment with his wife Amanda Shires, who opened the show and is the band’s fiddler. Shires helped Isbell realize he needed to seek rehab nearly a year and a half ago.
The elegiac “Elephant” is probably the best song off Isbell’s new record and deals with a character watching someone lose a bitter fight against cancer. It’s one of Isbell’s personal favorites and going by how many people were singing it back to him, a fan favorite as well.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom, though. One heckler got a laugh from Isbell when he shouted out, “Now play a sad song!” when Isbell finished “Elephant.” And more importantly, Isbell immediately reengaged the crowd with a dirty version of the Drive-By Truckers’ “Never Gonna Change,” which he wrote while with the band in 2004. After all the death and heartache, it was a cathartic, defiant moment of guitar pyrotechnics.
Once the song was over, Isbell remarked that sometimes you’ve just got to play a rock and roll tune. It seems with this tour, he’s taking that idea to heart.
-Owen R. Smith, on Twitter @inanedetails