Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires aren’t used to playing empty rooms.
“This is a lot like all the CD release shows we did before Southeastern came out,” Isbell deadpanned on Friday evening, speaking to a bare-boned crowd of cameramen and sound engineers scattered throughout the Brooklyn Bowl in Nashville.
Isbell’s fans were watching, though: the concert, streamed on Fans.com garnered 100,000 unique viewers. Huddled around laptops and iPhones, a worldwide audience celebrated the release of Reunions, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit’s newest album, in virtual fashion. Some watched the 75-minute show in private. Others logged into Zoom for a chance to become part of the performance, their likenesses projected onto screens throughout the venue — where Isbell and Shires could see them — and peppered throughout the livestream. Many held up signs with hand-written messages: “Hi from Japan.” “Congrats class of 2020!” “#3 of 16 chemo treatments done today. Winning!”
Isbell and Shires responded in kind, offering an acoustic performance that was understatedly upbeat, loose, and almost entirely focused on Reunions. There were false starts and missed cues — “I messed it up! Right at the very end! Do the solo again!” Isbell said to Shires during the homestretch of “It Gets Easier” — but those flubs only highlighted the human core of Reunions‘ songs, whose characters struggle to silence their inner demons and make peace with an increasingly strange reality.
There’s a verse in “What’ve I Done to Help,” Reunions‘ first track, where Isbell and his family run away from a world on fire, climbing to safety as chaos erupts below. “Send our thoughts and prayers to loved ones on the ground,” he sings, before sheepishly admitting that “as the days went by, we just stopped looking down.” It’s a moving moment — a rallying cry against inaction during times of societal struggle — and its message was reinforced by last night’s performance, which was live-streamed not from the safety of the couple’s Nashville-area home, but from the stage of a music venue that’s struggled to open its doors.
Earlier this spring, as the newly-constructed Brooklyn Bowl prepped for its kickoff show, a tornado ripped a 50-mile path through the middle of Tennessee, narrowly missing the venue by a single block. Less than two weeks later, Nashville businesses closed in an attempt to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, postponing Brooklyn Bowl’s grand opening indefinitely. An album like Reunions, full of protagonists who are battle-scarred yet still resilient, could very well double as the soundtrack for a city that’s on its knees, summoning up the energy — and the funds — to rebuild.
“It’s strange to put out a record now, but it feels good,” Isbell said, pausing between songs to address the virtual audience. “It feels like I’m taking something I believe in and throwing it loose into the world.”
Stripped of their textured layers — the synthesizers that add streaks of water-colored atmosphere to “Only Children,” the overdriven guitar that roils beneath the chorus of “Overseas” — the Reunions songs still had plenty of muscle to flex, driven forward by Isbell’s acoustic guitar, Shires’ violin, and the pair’s harmonies. After making their way through the 10-song album, Isbell and Shires returned to the stage for a quick encore, playing Warren Zevon’s “Mutineer” and Southeastern‘s “Cover Me Up” while housebound couples slow-danced on the Zoom feed.
The result was a record release show that felt both socially-distanced and interactive — a far cry from the rowdy revelry that fueled the band’s sold-out residency at the Ryman Auditorium last October, perhaps, but equally celebratory. For a world of music fans stuck at home, worried about the dangers that lurk just outside our front doors, this was the kind of reunion we needed.
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