Jason Isbell | Photo by Joe Del Tufo | joedeltufo.com

It’s been interesting following Jason Isbell on his journey through his breakthrough album Southeastern. Just before the release, I caught him late one night in a sparsely-filled upstairs at the World Cafe for the NON-COMMvention. He played solo, and when he started his set the chatter at the bar was louder than the song itself. He got a certain hard look in his eyes, and belted out the chorus to the then unreleased “Cover Me Up.” Lights flickered. It got everyone’s attention. And the songs on Southeastern and subsequent performances with his exceptional band the 400 Unit have been doing so ever since. I’ve caught his main stage World Cafe Live show, his filming at Lincoln Center for American Songwriter and his sold out show last night at the Keswick. Each show has shown a different side to Isbell and the songs of Southeastern. Tonight, missing wife and fiddler Amanda Shires (playing her own show in Texas), we were treated to a refined, almost too-perfect 80 minute set. Isbell busted out his brand new Martin guitar, and made it sing.

Isbell’s stage banter has always felt unrehearsed and refreshing. Tonight he told the story of a young (“single digit”) girl who showed up at a festival performance with a big “Live Oak” sign/request. And how after the show she asked him how the woman buried at the end of the song died. Caught off guard and not wanting to traumatize the girl he said, “Well… maybe the girl wasn’t actually dead… maybe they just buried her.”

Drive-By Truckers classics “Decoration Day,” “Outfit” and “Danko/Manuel” punctuated the set like passing thunderstorms. Older Isbell tracks like “Go It Alone” and the remarkable “Alabama Pines” balanced nicely. I should be very sick of “Alabama Pines” by now, I’m pretty sure it’s the song I’ve heard the most in the last 5 years. But everything about it resonates, especially lyrically. Lines like “I hardly know my name anymore, when no one calls it out it kind of vanishes away” and even a simple declaration of “I never do what I’m supposed to do” take on such gravity in Isbell’s hands.

After a few years this tour is honed to perfection. Not a single duffer in the set. Highlights for me: I loved Derry Deborja busting out the accordion (due to Shires fiddle not being available) in “Codeine.” Gave that track an entirely different feel. “Outfit” is always a revelation. “Cover Me Up” was rowdy, the best version of it I’ve heard so far. But for some reason it is the subtle “Relatively Easy” the kept looping through my head on the drive home. The man is one hell of a songwriter, and if there’s a better one out there right now that person doesn’t easily come to mind.

The absence of Amanda Shires is no small thing. And I am not just saying that because she makes my photos nicer. Despite this being the best I’ve seen these guys, she has become the glue that holds a lot of this together, and I think her presence would have taken this night into the stars.

A DVD/ HD download of Jason Isbell’s Austin City Limits show was released this week. I highly suggest you seek it out. This is an artist at the top of his game.

Damien Jurado played an engaging solo acoustic opening set. Need to check out more of his stuff.