Jason Isbell positively shines at Northrop


Jason Isbell at Northrop
Jason Isbell at Northrop collage (MPR photos/Bill DeVille, Luke Taylor)

Decorating the stage during Jason Isbell's show at Northrop in Minneapolis were three simulated stained-glass windows, each bearing a design of an anchor and dove. According to tradition, the anchor symbolizes safety and stability, but its direct maritime meaning also served Monday night's show: With his cool confidence, genuine warmth and masterful abilities, Jason Isbell proved he is a captain very much in command of his ship.

Arriving in Minneapolis in the wake of his recent Grammy wins (for American Roots Song, "24 Frames" and Americana Album, Something More than Free), Isbell and his bandmates established instant affinity by launching into "24 Frames," followed quickly by "Palmetto Rose."

The next two songs dipped into Isbell's back catalogue, with "Stockholm" — a favorite from Isbell's 2013 album, Southeastern — and "Decoration Day," a throwback to Isbell's Drive-By Truckers days and the title track from that outfit's 2003 album.

Although not a dancer, Isbell's feet rarely remained still during his Northrop performance; Isbell strode the boards like a confident — but not cocky — showman. And indicative of Isbell's classy manner, he would frequently retreat upstage so the spotlight could shine on his band members as they performed various solos and interludes in turn. Between songs, Isbell introduced each of his bandmates — drummer Chad Gamble, bassist Jimbo Hart, guitarist Sadler Vaden, keyboardist Derry Deborja, and violinist (and Isbell's wife) Amanda Shires. Besides saying each player's name and instrument, Isbell also paid each band member a compliment; for example, he called out Hart's natty suit saying, "Jimbo always respects the audience by wearing something nice."

Isbell's introduction of Vaden also included a shout-out to The Current. "Sadler accompanied Amanda and me on a visit to The Current today," Isbell said. "That's a great radio station. I love listening to that station." (Isbell's in-studio session, hosted by Bill DeVille, aired on Sunday, Feb. 28, during United States of Americana, and again on Monday, Feb. 29, at noon; it is archived here, with video.)

The warmest remarks were reserved, naturally, for Shires, with whom Isbell played a version of "Flagship" that could have stirred sentiment in the hardest of hearts. Isbell later sang, "Cover Me Up," again dedicating the song to and performing it with Shires. When Isbell sang the lyrics, "I sobered up and I swore off that stuff forever," a significant number in the audience applauded and hooted their support of Isbell — whose taming of his chemical demons came about through the intervention of Shires and others.

Although songs like "Something More than Free" and "Speed Trap Town" contain melancholy lyrics, Isbell and company exuded pure joy from the stage. Isbell travels with an arsenal of guitars, switching instruments on nearly every song; each exchange with his guitar tech came with shared smiles and off-mic pleasantries. And speaking of guitars, Isbell subverted the stereotype of the singer-songwriter by demonstrating his shredding prowess, many times approaching the lip of the stage to tear into a slide-guitar cadenza or to rip into the blues-scale solos that inform so much of Southern rock. On "Never Gonna Change," an Isbell contribution to the Truckers' 2004 album, The Dirty South, Isbell and Vaden stood toe-to-toe, doing a call-and-response of guitar solos that culminated in a crescendo-ing duet that seemed to cause Northrop's curtains to sway from the energy of the music.

Northrop itself impressed Isbell. After paying tribute (and further reinforcing his local cred) to the Turf Club and First Avenue, Isbell remarked how good Northrop — which unveiled its renovated space in April 2014 — sounds. "Not to sound [like a jerk] or misogynist," Isbell observed, smiling as he gazed up into Northrop's series of balconies, "but this room has such nice, feminine curves, you can tell it will sound nice. I don't want no big ol' manly room."

As he approached the last few songs in his generous 17-song set, Isbell gave shout-outs to opening act, Shovels and Rope, noting how much fun it is to travel with the Charleston, S.C., husband-and-wife duo.

For their part, Shovels and Rope delivered an attention-grabbing opening set. Although the weather on Feb. 22 certainly didn't represent the worst a Minnesota winter can offer, Shovels and Rope definitely warmed up the room with some Carolina heat. The duo, consisting of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, kicked out a set of their Southern Gothic tunes, trading instruments in the visual and musical maelstrom that characterizes their big-sound, multi-instrument, two-person act.

As a special treat, Shovels and Rope performed a new song they haven't yet recorded. Hearst and Trent shared a microphone as Trent played acoustic guitar and provided light percussion with a tambourine looped on his ankle. Although the title wasn't announced, the song, which features tight vocal harmonies, included a chorus about "This life may be too good to survive."

The audience were appreciative of Shovels and Rope, and Cary Ann even noted Northrop was a beautiful room "two or three times bigger" than any other room Shovels and Rope had ever played in the Twin Cities. She did, however, seem a bit bemused the audience remained seated during their set. "That's why we wore our suits," she quipped, adding, "That, or we've got bartending gigs after this."

Perhaps it's the comfy new seats or the tighter rows or the academic setting, but the audience chose to sit throughout Isbell's set as well. To interpret being seated as a lack of interest or appreciation, however, seems reductive. When Isbell's 17-song set concluded with "Children of Children," the audience got to their feet, applauding, hooting and hollering for several minutes until Isbell, Shires and Deborja returned to the stage to thunderous appreciation.

The audience remained standing as the three performed "Elephant" off of Southeastern, before the rest of the band returned to the stage for a spirited rendition of "Codeine."

With its combined ingredients of Southern rock, country, Americana and other influences, it may be difficult to categorize Isbell's music. Thankfully, Isbell himself provided the answer. "We'll be back real soon," he promised. "This is a great city to play rock 'n' roll."

As Isbell and his bandmates stood arm-in-arm and took a bow following their encore, it evoked lyrics of Isbell's "Something More than Free," in which the voice of that song's narrator declares, "I'm doing what I'm on this earth to do."

With gushing applause raining down on him from every level at Northrop Monday night, it seems Isbell himself is doing exactly what he's on this earth to do.


Shovels and Rope

  1. "Swimmin' Time"

  2. "Gasoline"

  3. "Coping Mechanism"

  4. "Bridge on Fire"

  5. "Play My Song"

  6. "The Devil Is All Around"

  7. "Fish Assassin"

  8. "O Be Joyful"

  9. "Birmingham"

  10. New song - not yet recorded; chorus mentions, "This life may be too good to survive"

  11. "Hail Hail"

Jason Isbell

  1. "24 Frames"

  2. "Palmetto Rose"

  3. "Stockholm"

  4. "Decoration Day"

  5. "Alabama Pines"

  6. "The Life You Chose"

  7. "Traveling Alone"

  8. "Dress Blues"

  9. "Never Gonna Change"

  10. "Flagship"

  11. "Something More Than Free"

  12. "Cover Me Up"

  13. "Flying Over Water"

  14. "Super 8"

  15. "Speed Trap Town"

  16. "If It Takes a Lifetime"

  17. "Children of Children"


  1. "Elephant"

  2. "Codeine"

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1 Photos

  • Shovels and Rope at Northrop
    Shovels and Rope at Northrop collage (MPR photos/Lindsay Kimball)

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