Concert Review: Father John Misty and Jason Isbell Throw Down the Rock Gravitas

Although they're far from twins, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better double-header than this well-matched co-headlining tour.

Jason Isbell and Father John Misty
Chris Willman

Co-headlining tours don’t come much more potent — or spark more fun arguments about “Well, who should close that bill?” — than the 18-date summer outing by (in alphabetical order) Jason Isbell and Father John Misty, two of the essential singer-songwriters of the 2010s. Their audiences would definitely not completely overlap in a Venn diagram, so it’s kind of a wonder that someone had the insight to pair these two as separate-but-equals.

Did the booking instigate from the simple fact that Misty name-checked Isbell in last year’s lost-weekend single, “Dear Mr. Tillman,” as someone who might be chagrined about his behavior? That was most likely a semi-random joke on Misty’s part and Isbell has not actually taken to the road with him because he’s, like, his sponsor. (That line — “Jason Isbell’s here as well, and he seemed a little worried about you” — passes without any  winks or Isbell photobombings during Misty’s set, in case you’re wondering.)

The most practical consideration for the tour may be that both performers are between album cycles, so neither may be feeling the need to do a yearlong tour with a full-length, new-release-flogging set. The suspicion that Isbell and Misty might both be headed back into the studio some time this year seemed to be borne out by the fact that both are using the tour to try out a new song — in Isbell’s case, “Overseas,” and in Misty’s, “Time Makes Fools of Us All,” either of which will make worthy mid-range additions to their catalogs.

The tour listings on the website for Isbell and the 400 Unit tell who’ll be closing the show each night. Over the weekend at the Santa Barbara Bowl, on the second night of the tour (which, surprisingly, is not routing through L.A.), Misty went on last, and if you didn’t know that it came down to drawing straws more than anything else, you could come up with a few decent reasons why he might have been chosen the one to send audiences home. Not to get too superficial about it, but he’s the one with a light show, with bright enough rear spots that his visage was sometimes almost completely in shadow through a few numbers. Misty commands the bigger band, too, a 10-piece that puts a three-man horn/woodwind section into near-constant action, although the string section he took to venues like the Hollywood Bowl last summer has been dropped. On a more profound level, his songs aim more openly at big-picture profundity, or a wry version of it. After the good reverend has spent six-plus minutes detailing the futility of the entire history of humankind in “Pure Comedy,” that’s a tough act to follow.

But Isbell’s guitar heroics are kind of a toughie in that regard, too. And although he isn’t quite as concerned as Misty is about making hay of man’s minuscule place in the cosmos, Isbell brings shiploads of gravitas of his own. “Welcome back to the summer feel-good dance party,” he joked after singing a typically riveting rendition of “Elephant,” aka the terminal cancer ballad. Perhaps no one should have to follow that number unless it’s Isbell himself following it with antidotes like his old band’s “Never Gonna Change” (“This is for the 10 or 12 of you out there who may have wished to attend a Drive-by Truckers/Fleet Foxes concert in 2002”), where he indulged in some nearly Eddie Van Halen-esque speed-playing before wandering over to his fellow lead guitarist, Sadler Vaden, for a jammy, virtuoso call-and-response duel right out of the Southern 1970s. And then it was back to mortality and the quiet anticipation of loss in the closing “If We Were Vampires,” as if to lay down the gauntlet for Misty and say, “Top that, fellow mortal-coil-considering dude.”

Lazy loaded image
Chris Willman

Audiences win, anyway, whatever the show order — with an added element of that being the one fixed point of the night, an acoustic opening set by the talented newcomer Jade Bird (although not many saw her in Santa Barbara, with the absurdly early curfew at the Bowl dictating that she was offstage before 6:50 p.m.).

Playing while it was still moderately sunny out, Isbell brought his own daylight to dark corners in his bittersweet rockers. There aren’t many songs of his that don’t feel like anthems-for-a-generation in their own unassuming, modest way, like “High Road, with its line “Last year was a son of a bitch for nearly everyone we know” (an observation unlikely to wear out its welcome anytime soon). “Thanks for listening,” he said at the end of “White Man’s World,” a statement you wouldn’t read a lot into if you didn’t know that some would-be fans in other parts of the country found him singing about white privilege to be preachy. An organ solo came in on that number, and it sounded unusual, before you took a moment to register that that’s a spot you’d expect to hear some fiddle — but Isbell’s violinist wife, Amanda Shires, is off doing her own solo tour right now. It’s no insult to the great flavors she brings to the 400 Unit to say that the set wasn’t crippled by leaving a little more room in this instance for two expert on-and-off slide players you’d be happy to hear intertwine all night.

Isbell’s sets, unlike Misty’s, change a lot from night to night. But certain choices are immutable, like the classic emo sex ballad (sorry!) “Cover Me Up,” of which he said, I wrote that for my wife quite a few years ago, and she’s still my wife, so it worked.” Meanwhile, the freshly written addition to his show, “Overseas,” would seem to be about a husband and father for whom things didn’t work out so well. “I saw you losing faith and I was watching when the light went out,” he lamented, over a fiery instrumental bed that had plenty of spark to it. Details become Isbell’s songwriting, now as always: “The waiter make a young girl cry at the table next to mine tonight, and I know you would have brought him to his knees / But you’re overseas.”

One number that doesn’t always appear in the set is his “A Star is Born” contribution, “Maybe It’s Time” (as in “…to let the old ways die” — you know it). “Now I have something to say when somebody on the plane asks if they’ve ever heard one of my songs,” he said. Although Isbell doesn’t have a hit, per se, he has“a song that played a hit in a movie. … I think that movie has to be sci-fi, because there’s no actual world where this song would be a f–kin’ hit. I want to say ‘the science fiction classic “A Star is Born,” starring raccoons from space.’” Isbell’s performance did bring to mind the suspension-of-disbelief disconnect of how Bradley Cooper’s character didn’t project nearly the innate intelligence to have come up with a song like that. Isbell’s not a bad-looking feller; what if someone put him in an indie movie, singing his own original songs?

Misty was not nearly as effusive during his time on stage, limiting his exchanges with the audience to one long one where the sunglasses-wearing star admitted to some difficulty having exchanges with the audience. “I have no idea how to address crowds this size. I’m used to addressing crowds much bigger than this,” he joked. “But someone sent me a YouTube video on charisma — this is a well meaning friend — that said that to be more likable, I have to indicate more when I’m being sarcastic. Apparently that ‘s what one of the Ryan guys does. Ryan Reynolds? Ryan Gosling is the guy who does this all the time” — he rubbed the back of his neck at length —“that’s like his big acting move. … Anyway, this concludes the banter.”

Misty’s set didn’t feel like it was short on banter, maybe because a song like “Pure Comedy” is essentially a monologue set to music. The same could be said of “Ballad of the Dying Man,” which had him backed by celestial white lights pointed up at the heavens. When he sang the lines “Eventually the dying man takes his final breath / But first checks his news feed to see what he’s ’bout to miss,” the teenager behind me shouted, “Whoo!” (Ask not for whom the bell tolls, junior.) As undeniable as these epic rants are, the set was all the better for how much it incorporated of 2018’s “God’s Favorite Customer,” which found Misty adhering a little more to lyrically economical, highly melodic pop song conventions, and only sounding the more masterful for it. Death defiance has never been shorter and sweeter than it is in “Please Don’t Die,” the prettiest and most plaintive song he’s written.

The new song, “Time Makes Fools of Us All,” doesn’t really sound like the “Pure Comedy” or “Favorite Customer” material. Instead, with its stolid beat, banks of synths and reluctant sigh of a melody, it sounds a lot like … Leonard Cohen circa the 1980s. Given how much he shares that late poet’s ear for finding the wryness in despair, it’s a wonder he didn’t get there sooner. It’s a mid-tempo tune about what happened to “the tamest minds of my generation,” and he revealed what sounded like some autobiographical career details as he mocked the pursuit of fame in the opening stanza: “Go and serve your client notice, that of all the acts I’ve known / Yours is easily the least famous to turn down the cover of the Rolling Stone / Lilywhite faces so familiar and yet impossible to recall / I guess time just makes fools of us all.” (Interestingly, Misty has been singing a completely different first and second verse at other tour stops, so the song is clearly a work in progress.) This new thesis on the old saw that all is vanity was interrupted by a Misty harmonica solo that sounded downright tragically heroic, against such a warm bed of horns.

In a way, Misty and Isbell are nearly reverse images of one another. Isbell’s songs feel essentially life-affirming in the end, but he can write downers like nobody’s business. Misty’s material tends toward a fundamental bleakness, but he has a couple of great, nearly cheerful “we’re going to make a go of this anyway, dammit” numbers to put in at or near the end of his set, in the form of “Real Love” and “I Love You, Honeybear.” They are perfectly balanced yin and yang in that way, so don’t give yourself spoilers by looking ahead to see who’ll be closing the show. Even if it’s not your favorite among the two, the babysitter or nightcap can wait.


The remaining tour dates:

June 11 — Redmond, WA @ Marymoor Park Concerts
June 14 — Minneapolis, MN @ The Armory
June 15 — Chicago @ Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island
June 16 — Milwaukee, WI @ BMO Harris Pavilion
June 17 — Detroit @ Fox Theatre
June 19 — Brooklyn, NY @ Celebrate Brooklyn! Performing Arts Festival
June 20 — Canandaigua, NY @ Constellations Brands – Marvin Sands Pavilion
June 21 — Columbia, MD @ Merriweather Post Pavilion
June 22 — Philadelphia @ Metropolitan Opera House
June 24 — Richmond, VA @ Altria Theater
June 25 — Cary, NC @ Booth Amphitheatre
June 27 — Irving, TX @ Pavilion at Toyota Music Factory
June 28 — Houston, TX @ White Oak Music Hall – Lawn
June 29 — Tulsa, OK @ BOK Center

Concert Review: Father John Misty and Jason Isbell Throw Down the Rock Gravitas

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