A Rocker’s Working Vacation

Ex-Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell mellows out with a solo tour


With downtime between discs, Jason Isbell is doing solo dates at small venues.

Jason Isbell doesn’t have a new record to promote, so he’s on what you might call a “musician’s vacation.” In addition to playing some dates with his backing band, the 400 Unit, Isbell has been alternating between booking low-key solo shows and jetting off to high-profile gigs opening for Ryan Adams.

“We’re between records, so I can do whatever I want for a while,” Isbell says. “The shows with Ryan and the places I’ve been booking to play solo myself, people are real patient and quiet and pay attention. It makes it a lot more fun than fighting with a room. I won’t play a late solo show in a loud place. I’d rather do an earlier show at the same venue or on Sunday because it’s not fun to stand there and yell and bang on the guitar.”

Not that Isbell would make such a ruckus. While the 33-year-old Alabama native (and former Drive-By Trucker) is certainly capable of turning up the volume with his backing band, his acoustic work feels far more delicate.

Take Isbell’s last album, 2011’s “Here We Rest.” While the record has its share of rockers, the most striking tracks are the softer ones: twangy opener “Alabama Pines,” the haunting “Daisy Mae” and the hypnotizing “Save It for Sunday.”

“They were all written with just me and a guitar,” Isbell says. “Sometimes I’ll play piano, but mostly it’s guitar. That’s how they come into the world, I guess.”

Then there’s the heartbreakingly beautiful ballad “Danko/Manuel,” a song he wrote and recorded while he was still with the Truckers, about the deaths of Rick Danko and Richard Manuel of the Band. Isbell had occasionally been playing the song live with Adams — as they did at Strathmore in January — but the tune took on added meaning when the Band’s drummer, Levon Helm, died last month.

“I spent a lot of time growing up listening to that stuff and trying to write songs that sounded like that, trying sing like that and trying to be that cool,” Isbell says. “He had an influence on just about everything I did musically.”

Rams Head On Stage, 33 West St., Annapolis; Sat., 1 p.m., $21; 410-268-4545.
Mansion on O Street, 2020 O St. NW; Sun., 6 p.m., $50; 202-496-2020. (Dupont Circle)
Rudi Greenberg is Express' Weekend Pass editor and comedy columnist.
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