It had been a while since I last visited College Street Music Hall, and I continue to be impressed with its progress each time I visit. It’s starting more and more to feel like a venue I’ve been going to my whole life, and in my own backyard. Tonight I was here for Jason Isbell with Blake Mills opening, two artists whose profiles seem to be growing at incredible rates.
Mills, who put out my favorite album of 2014, came out on stage with a small trio; it was just him, drums, and bass/keyboards depending on the song. From his albums you know that Mills can play guitar, but watching it in person is an otherworldly experience. I learned in a later e-mail exchange that he got his start from a bad trip: “When I was younger I smoked some pot with some friends that wasn’t very good, and just when I started to lose it, I picked up the guitar and just completely zoned out. It took my mind off a bad trip I was on. I stopped smoking pot after that.”
His story speaks to the trance-like state that he gets in as he plays, like a wobble toy, he sways around on his stool, kicking his legs out, eyes closed in pain or exultation, and you fear that he might fall off. He oscillated between regular and slide guitar, the latter a favorite choice of Isbell as well. “My favorite musicians are singers, and there’s no way I know how to get guitar closer to singing than with a slide. Not only that, it accentuates all the character in stuff like intonation and melody.”
It is my opinion that Mills isn’t all guitars though. When I hear his music, the base songwriting is there, and the lyrics have a depth to them that belies an artist rather than just a musician. When I asked him about this, he had a great response: “Some people respond to the writing, others to the playing, etc. It seems like focus points (like songwriting, production, or guitar playing) are often just a reflection of what the listener’s pre-existing interests are.”
He played a healthy mix of his first and second albums, in his all too brief set. Fans of Mills, such as myself, I assume are the kind of people who can listen to a musician jam out on guitar for hours. Fortunately, singer/songwriter Isbell is no stranger to rocking out on the guitar.
Isbell’s headlining tour came on the heels of new album, “Something More Than Free.” The country tinged artist had first come into the spotlight as a member of the Drive-By Truckers, but was kicked out when a drug/alcohol problem became too much. His wife and Ryan Adams led an intervention, which pointed Isbell in the right direction. You know Rock & Roll has come a long way when the audience cheers louder in reference to hard earned sobriety than it does at the end of each song.
I’ll put a guess that it’s because we need an artist like Jason Isbell whose music is as earnest as his stage persona. His solo work is derived from his recovery and his struggles, and most importantly from his home in the South. This bleeds through every fiber of his being when he’s up on stage, and he plays like he means it. For nearly two hours, Isbell rocks through songs and crooned through ballads, a perfectly tuned set-list that hit all the highs and lows.
Like Mills, he’s no stranger to the guitar and both he and his back-up guitarist shared soloing duties, sometimes going on for minutes at a time. It was fun to watch the audience meerkat in these moments, looking to glance a peek at the magic pouring out of their hands.
After two hours, and when I got home, and the next day, I couldn’t stop thinking about what a great concert they put on. The two of them complement each other so well because they seem to be grounded around the same principles and use the same compass in their songwriting and playing.
Blake Mills likes to stay “very, very busy,” and thankfully at that, because I’m not sure I can get enough of his music, whether it’s his own or the many other musicians he’s worked with from Jackson Browne to Lucius. As for Jason Isbell, I imagine he’ll be on tour promoting this album straight through the end of next year as more and more ears catch wind of it. Here’s hoping both of them come back to CSMH; in Mill’s own words “New Haven was a great show.”
Article: Christopher Gilson