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  JASON ISBELL w/ Mic Harrison and Believe in Toledo  
  The EARL  
  East Atlanta, GA  
Reviewed by:
  Sparklehonkey and Malimus  
Performance Rating:
Sound Quality:
Overall Rating:

This was a show that I have been looking forward to since the date was announced. Jason Isbell's addition to The Drive-by Truckers lineup was a breath of fresh air, and I have truly enjoyed his contribution to an already great rock band. Thus, I was very excited to see him perform solo at a venue which is slowly becoming my new home.

Malimus and I arrived at The EARL right in time for the first band, Believe in Toledo. I was not terribly impressed with this three piece band. They played rather generic alternative rock, but to their credit, did so with enthusiasm. And musically, they were pretty sound. The singer's voice and the sound of the band very much reminded me of The Gin Blossoms, while Malimus remarked that, if Matchbox 20 was an indie rock band, this would be it. Should be a big hit with casual music listeners, as they fit nicely into the generic alternative rock sound. Their set was rough though, and at one point, they had to stop because the singer couldn't remember a song. Final thought: enthusiastic, but awkward and bland.

  My basic impression of these guys is, "Well, the college frat band has to play somewhere during the summer." Not that they weren't trying hard and all. I was specifically distracted by the bass player. He sort of reminded me of Jack Black's character from School of Rock, only before the learning-what's-really-important stint with the kids. Maybe not so bad, but just sort of like that. All in all, I assume that The EARL just needed to fill a Thursday night bill.  
  The second act was Mic Harrison, who performed with three others in his back up band. They were very good musically, but they didn't leave much of an impression in my mind. It was good bar music, but beyond that, it was pretty unremarkable. They kind of vaguely reminded us of The Pogues. Nonetheless, I enjoyed their set.  
  I actually enjoyed this set. They were somewhat Pogues-ish, and that's never a bad thing unless you're a liver. Mostly they came across as a group of guys who have been on the road, playing bars and dives like The EARL for 20 years but still manage to love the life. A professional bar band, with a hint of pub-rock. Lifers. Not necessarily the greatest shakes but you gotta respect the lifers.  

Finally, Jason Isbell took the stage with his guitar, along with his wife (and new DBT member) Shonna Tucker on bass, and Gary Nichols on acoustic guitar. I was rather taken aback, as Jason is looking considerably different from the first time I saw the band perform and is now sporting shorter hair and a much thinner physique. Sitting in chairs the entire show, they conveyed a sense of telling stories to the crowd, and I particularly liked the relaxed atmosphere. This is folky at its best.

Their set was very solid, and seemed to improve as it went on (and it went on for a good while - 16 songs!). Jason played both of his songs off Decoration Day, several songs that he announced would be on his solo album, (slated to be released next year), one of Patterson Hood's songs (The Assassin from Hood's recently released solo album Killers and Stars), and 4 new songs off the new DBT album (The Dirty South, being released in late August). Mixed in nicely were a couple of blues covers and a request for TVA. TVA has been a favorite of mine since I saw him play it a couple of years ago with The Drive-by Truckers at The Variety Playhouse, so I was very pleased when someone shouted it out, and he then played it. One of the songs he mentioned to be on the upcoming solo album was titled Whisper, which he explained was kind of a compliment to the 'Til Tuesday song, Voices Carry. Told from the point of the "man who knows he's done something wrong", it raised goose bumps on my arms.

That's one of the things that his songs have always done for me, though, and was the main reason I wanted to see him perform an entire set of his own music. His lyrics and music have always struck a chord with me. His songs tell the story of growing up in the South in a way that several southerners have told me is close to a religious experience. And despite not growing up here, I can perfectly understand what they mean. Stories from the southern half of my family seem to come to life through music: the depression and how the TVA brought work and power to most of the South, growing up poor but proud, stories of everyday people who give the South its character and grit.

Sound-wise, everything seemed to go smoothly. The three performers meshed well together and took their cues from each other. I think that Shonna is still getting used to the music, but she did a good job regardless. I look forward to seeing how she will interact with the full DBT lineup. Amazing guitar playing from both Isbell and Nichols, who rocked out and seemed to have a lot of fun doing it.

  This was the best show I've seen in five years. It was simply flawless. Isbell has almost dethroned Patterson Hood as the best storyteller in The Drive-by Truckers. And if you'd told me there was even a chance of that two years ago, I'd have laughed in your face. As one of those aforementioned southerners who take great storytelling as a religious art form, I tend not to write too much about it, because you kinda have to be there to know. But suffice to say, for a little over and hour Jason Isbell turned The EARL into the kind of place southerners hear about from the old-timers, from back when Hank
was playing dives across Alabama and Tennessee, or Robert Johnson was digging up some devils in Mississippi. Stories are ghosts in search of a house to haunt, and Jason raised the dead a little bit this night.
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