Showstopper In Memphis: Jason Isbell Steals The Show As Dawes Opener

Dawes with Jason Isbell
Minglewood Hall
Memphis, Tennessee
October 22, 2013

In just ten seconds after taking the stage at Minglewood Hall, Jason Isbell  had silenced the crowd. Not by chastising them, mind you. There are musicians who do that, literally stop the music (Chris Robinson, for example) just to tell their money-paying fans to stop talking, or maybe to put down their cell phones.

But Isbell did it the right way. All it took was his honest songwriting and a good band.


It was almost unfair to the headliner, Dawes, that the room began to empty once Isbell’s all-too-brief opening set came to a close a short 40 minutes later.

Both bands are touring behind new(ish) albums – Isbell pushing Southeastern, and Dawes is on the road behind Stories Don’t End. Isbell and his 400 Unit took the stage first, and despite the abbreviated set, the former Drive-By Trucker mesmerized with his Southern Gothic lyrics. His songs cut deep, with honest themes capable of resonating with almost anyone. “Elephant,” in particular – a tale about taking care of a cancer patient – had the room silent. Played just by Isbell, Amanda Shires (violin) and Derry DeBorja (keyboards),  it was a haunting take and alone worth the admission price.

With a set built primarily on Southeastern, Isbell didn’t dip too far back into his vast catalogue. Even the “older” songs he played, like “Alabama Pines” and “Codeine,” don’t have too many miles on them. “Cover Me Up” translated nicely to the live set despite its sparse arrangement on Southeastern, and “Stockholm” went over well with the enthusiastic crowd. Concluding with “Super 8,” the 400 Unit delivered a tremendous opening set, and definitely left the crowd wanting more.

Dawes followed, but the bar was set a little too high, and as their set progressed, the crowd started to thin out – it was clear that the Memphis crowd was mostly there for their fellow Southerner Isbell, not the California act.


But with a repertoire founded on strong songwriting, the band was on point from the opening notes. They featured songs from all of their albums, and included a quirky, strongly-executed cover of Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight” to boot.

While the music was by and large great, the most memorable moment was probably when lead singer/guitarist Taylor Goldsmith implored the Birmingham crowd to sing along…which would have been great save for the fact that the band, the audience, and everyone in the vicinity was in Memphis. Given that musicians travel for a living, it’s pretty remarkable that this sort of misstep doesn’t happen more frequently, but the band and the embarrassed frontman took the blunder in stride; they stopped the music, apologized, complimented the city, and moved forward.

“From a Window Seat,” the second track from Stories, was especially powerful. The band powered through the chorus and verses before giving way to Taylor’s guitar solo. “When My Time Comes” was clearly a fan favorite, as the room lent accompanying vocals to the chorus, and “If I Wanted Someone” was another track that went over well.

Towards the end of the set, the band called Isbell onto the stage, and then proceeded to play a blistering “Peace In The Valley.” Isbell unleashed a slide solo worthy of all his Southern rock forefathers, which was nice to see given that, for the most part, his guitar work took a backseat to his songwriting during his opening set. It was phenomenal. Sit-ins can fall flat but this one did not.

Refreshingly, towards the end of the show Goldsmith commented on how, rather than leave the stage for the cursory encore break, they’d just stay there, play a few more songs, and then everyone could go home, because “it was a Tuesday.”

Many great tales were told over the course of the night – stories of love, loss, and travel. The guys from Dawes and Isbell are phenomenal raconteurs. Memphians were fortunate enough to get a chance to watch it all unfold, and no one left disappointed, regardless of what point in the evening they chose to make their exit.

Click the thumbnails to view the photos by Josh Mintz

Jason Isbell