at the Wiltern, Los Angeles, CA.
As a member of the seminal alt-country-southern-indie-rock band Drive By Truckers, Isbell was a Pitchfork darling before the term existed. As a sober solo artist, he's traded indie cred for the vaster vistas of a number one record on the country, rock and folk charts. You might say he's losing his edge (Pitchfork gave the new record a 5) but a number one record on three specialty Billboard charts at the same time is what you trade Pitchfork acclaim FOR, in an ideal world.
I was never a 'Truckers fan, as I heard Drive By Truckers referred to last night at the Wiltern. I saw Isbell for the first time at Stagecoach a couple years ago, and he made a deep impression, simply on the strength of his song writing and delivery. It's not every day you see an artist perfectly blend Country, Rock and Folk without one element overwhelming the others, but with Jason Isbell, that is what you get. Whenever I contemplate Isbell's career, I'm reminded from one of the Simpson's Treehouse of Horror Episodes, "He was too crazy for Boys Town, and too much of a boy for Crazy Town."
The show last night conclusively demonstrated that Isbell has his fans, and he has written plenty of hits, but that he hasn't yet penetrated mass culture to the point where he is licensing his songs for truck ads. Shows at the Wiltern are good for judging the extent to which a particular artist has transcended their genre by the number of music industry insiders that show up to a show. Last night, there were many, many, many devoted fans, but the industry was under represented, the reserved tables in the back of the room, empty.
Isbell's parade of hits during a two hour set left me grasping for reasons why he hasn't broken through to mainstream success (although a number one record will probably qualify as said mainstream success) and they are probably similar to why he was able to be a part of a band that had such insider credibility.
Isbell's audience are a well mannered bunch, and anyone can see that they are people who have been with him for a long time. At one point, Isbell actually thanked the audience for not heading to the exits when he played material from the new record- hardly what one would expect when said record is number one on the Billboard Album chart.
The Wiltern is a great venue for making an artistic statement, and Isbell's two hour set was a tour de force. I suppose his next level would be having a number one single, and there is no question in my mind that he has it in him.