Review: Jason Isbell and James McMurtry Join Forces for an Evening of Americana Beauty
After sitting empty for more than 30 years, Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, N.Y., reopened to the public on January 23, 2015. About a month later, James McMurtry celebrated the release of his ninth LP, Complicated Game. And just a couple of months after that, Jason Isbell released his fifth studio record, Something More Than Free.
Three years later, these three institutions came together for an unforgettable night of Americana and rock 'n' roll.
It wasn’t the first time McMurtry and Isbell shared a stage in New York City. Back in 2011, the two co-headlined a gig at City Winery, an intimate, cozy venue — occupancy ranges from 250 up to 500 — situated somewhere between Houston and Spring Street. Fast forward seven years to Feb. 3, 2018, and the two alt-country legends found themselves together again, this time on the gorgeous and much larger stage of the 3,000-seat Kings Theatre.
Doors opened to the iconic theater around 7PM on Saturday night, and fans bustled in from the below-freezing temperatures to catch the opening act. Isbell is known to tour with worthy openers — Damien Jurado, Amanda Shires, the Mountain Goats, Shovels and Rope, et al. — but this winter tour packs an extra-special treat for alt-country fans by giving the slot to McMurtry and his band (comprised of guitarist Tim Holt, bassist Cornbread and drummer Jeff Botta).
McMurtry has been trudging the roads of Americana since he released his debut album, Too Long in the Wasteland (produced by John Mellencamp and mastered by Bob Ludwig) in 1989, and has been an obvious influence on Isbell for about as long, both as an artist and a songwriter. Isbell admitted as much to the crowd during his set: “I like to tour with people I actually listen to," he said. "I spent a lot of time studying what [McMurtry] does, and there are a whole lot of songs I wish I wrote. I don’t know how the hell he does it.”
"I like to tour with people I actually listen to. I spent a lot of time studying what McMurtry does, and there are a whole lot of songs I wish I wrote. I don’t know how the hell he does it." — Jason Isbell
For about 45 minutes, McMurtry and company showed the Brooklyn audience why he’s such a guide to Isbell and so many other artists. Opening with “Childish Things,” McMurtry quickly painted a picture of the world that so often inhabits his songs. He sings with a drone and writes with a force reminiscent of Lou Reed, but where Reed would sing about the trials and tribulations of life in New York City, McMurtry takes his efforts to a more rural landscape, where communities are peculiar and the people who inhabit them are realer than real.
Take any song in McMurtry’s set and you get a taste of his adeptness to weave intricate stories into five-minute melodies. A local paper in New York City recently agreed when they featured McMurtry’s “Copper Canteen” as one of "25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music Is Going." Before he played that tune at Kings, he took to the mic to get a little something off his chest.
“This one got me a mention in the failing New York Times,” he said to thousands of cheers. "That makes me an active participant in the fake news industry, which I think we used to refer to as a free press."
The rest of the evening featured songs from McMurtry's canon, from "Levelland" to "Ain't Got a Place." The highlight of the performance, though, came at the end with the superb and inimitable "No Buffalo" from 1997's It Had to Happen.
It was just about 20 minutes after McMurtry and company left the stage that Isbell and his 400 Unit came out. By now, the sold-out crowd had filled the seats, and 3,000 people were on their feet cheering, hollering and making all kinds of noise. What was likely a simple coincidence, Isbell chose to open the night with "Go It Alone" from Here We Rest, the album he was promoting back in 2011 when he and McMurtry rocked City Winery.
From there, the rest of the night was all about Isbell's Grammy Awards-snagging, fan-obsessed, Twitter-verified brand of rock 'n' roll, and his beautiful-yet-terrifyingly-heartbreaking songwriting. When combined, Brooklyn was gifted with an unforgettable hour-and-43-minute concert that highlighted songs from throughout his career, including his time with the Drive-By Truckers.
For fans who caught any of Isbell's shows in 2017 in support of The Nashville Sound, the Kings Theatre experience felt familiar while somehow standing completely on its own. Sure, the setlist wasn't drastically different than previous gigs, but Isbell and his crew — guitarist Sadler Vaden, bassist Jimbo Hart, drummer Chad Gamble, keyboardist Derry deBorja and fiddler Amanda Shires — reworked some tunes into seemingly one-of-a-kind renditions.
The most notable reimagining came with The Nashville Sound's opening track, "Last of My Kind." On record, the song is a peaceful acoustic ditty, evoking thoughts of John Prine and the like. Onstage, however, the song was all about a massive showdown between Vaden's guitar and Shires' fiddle. It was the type of thing that could never be replicated in the studio, existing only in the fiery atmosphere of the 400 Unit's live show.
There was little talk in-between songs, other than Isbell graciously introducing his bandmates. The first set closed with the always raucous Truckers tune, "Never Gonna Change," and served as a stark reminder that Isbell isn't just one of the greatest songwriters alive today, he also might be one of the most savage guitarists around.
As the band left the stage, fans were left breathless, but also wanting. After all, in the midst of the 17 songs of the main set, the crowd was dying to hear the heart-wrenching "If We Were Vampires." Fortunately for Brooklyn, the encore opened with the forceful "Anxiety" and closed with the Grammy-winning love song from The Nashville Sound.
We're sure it was another simple coincidence, but it was nevertheless moving to witness Isbell close his show with the heavily acoustic "If We Were Vampires," just as McMurtry decided to end his night with the heavily acoustic "No More Buffalo." The two Americana masters were in sync every step of the way. It's clear that there couldn't have been any better way to celebrate the third anniversary of the historic Kings Theatre reopening to the public than by giving the stage to the two most important songwriters of the 21st century.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit Setlist — Feb. 3, 2018
"Go It Alone"
"Hope the High Road"
"Something More Than Free"
"White Man's World"
"Last of My Kind"
"Chaos and Clothes"
"Flying Over Water"
"Cover Me Up"
"Never Gonna Change"
"If We Were Vampires"