Three key words from Jason Isbell’s nigh-on triumphant set at Neumos last Tuesday night: benzodiazapine, codeine, and Pedialyte. Oh, and the liquor cart from the set opener, “Flying Over Water,” a new, gorgeous song that helped define the tarnished glow of Isbell’s new album, Southeastern. The chemicals swirled in Isbell's songs, as they have in his life. He's moved on, though, making classic tunes about bailing on wastedness. A lot of print has come Isbell’s way in 2013, from a New York Times Magazine profile to umpteen glowing reviews for Southeastern, among the most heartfelt albums you’ll hear all year.
“You all smell like onions,” he told the Neumo’s crowd and then he and the 400 Unit, augmented by show-opener (and wife) Amanda Shires on violin, ripped into their set, dotted by tunes he wrote as the 3rd guitarist in Drive-By Truckers and bolstered movingly by tunes from Southeastern. Isbell’s known for his loud, brawny guitar slinging and a set of vocal pipes that at times can outblast his guitar, which happened frequently during the set. Most impactful at Neumos were the new album’s acoustic, warm and sad and confessional songs, from “Elephant,” a wrenching minor-key cancer song to the partially acapella “Live Oak,” all haunted by a prior, drunker, more dangerous, and lesser-controlled Isbell. Yes, he scorched Drive-By Truckers tunes like “Decoration Day” and “Outfit” with ear-blasting guitar work, replete with faux song endings that recall so much Southern rock (think of “Free Bird” and its 1:25 ending romp). There was a running Sir Mix-a-Lot routine, middle-aged white guys nearly pogoing while throwing devil-horns, and a bevy of banter about sad songs. Isbell, meanwhile, gave his bandmate/wife knowing nods and winks, and gave the crowd what might have been his best Seattle set ever.