One of the things I’d forgotten during Covid was how sometimes a show can get under your skin in a way that reverberates for days or weeks. When you can’t come down from the high enough to sleep, when the next day you’re hungover as hell even if you didn’t have a single drink. When you simultaneously feel you are floating on cloud nine and like you’ll never be able to catch that particular high again so life has got to be downhill from here.
Every show I’ve been to since June (when we all naively thought the light at the end of the tunnel was not the Delta Acela bearing down) has illuminated a facet of what I’ve been missing the past two years: That first one back, Brian Fallon, who was actually the last artist I saw the night before shutdown, when he started with “A Wonderful Life,” one of the last songs he played at that last show. Sitting at a table with my girls Kathy, Kelly, and Michelle, whom I hadn’t seen in ages, even though we kept complaining and crying to one another online. Running into our concert pal Tall Paul made us feel like the world was righting itself.
Then meeting up with my road dog, Sharon, for a Low Cut Connie show. It was only 15 minutes away from where we live, not one of our epic road trips or Asbury Park weekends, but at least we were back on board. That first live small-venue punk show with Off With Their Heads, an actual pit and people screaming along. A Laura Jane Grace weekend doubleheader; we’d gotten locked out of her Four Seasons Total Landscaping show (a rare occurrence for me and my friends, since we’re skilled ticket buyers and scroungers), and feeling normal for the first time in two years singing along with “Sink Florida Sink.”A couple of outdoor shows at the Stone Pony with big crowds to remind us of how that worked.
But it was that Jason Isbell show at the Met in Philly night before last that I had been waiting for like no other, for over 15 months. It had been rescheduled twice, and I wasn’t going to let myself believe in too much even after strolling past the tour buses on the way to the venue.
I met up with Tall Paul, who was already front and center on the barrier when I arrived. Of the nine shows I’ve seen post-Covid, Tall Paul has been at seven of them. Sharon and I met him in line at a Dave Hause show nine years ago, and we just expect to see him everywhere even though he lives hours away from us. (Check out almost any concert video on YouTube and you’ll see him too; about six and half feet tall, always front and center, wearing a blue bandanna.) I’d hung out with him for the first time in ages at that Off With Their Heads show; he’d just gotten back from seeing Jason Isbell at Red Rocks. I was so jealous; one of our favorite artists at what people tell me is the best concert venue in the country? We have no relationship outside shows and I didn’t even know his last name until 2019, but Wednesday night he told me he’s been at more shows with me than with any other woman. This is what happens with show friends: Maybe you’ll also become friends on another level, maybe you won’t even know each other’s last names but that’s totally fine.
Kathleen Edwards opened and did a great set. I was a fan but had never seen her live before. Tall Paul didn’t know who she was and I had to brief him before the set, but he liked her and said he’d be checking out more of her music.
I hadn’t realized how keyed up I was until Jason and the 400 Unit walked out onstage and began playing “What’ve I Done to Help.” I had to remind myself THREE TIMES during the song to breathe so I wouldn’t black out on the rail. It wasn’t even that particular song; they could have started with anything and I would have been overcome.
As soon as the song ended I got the adrenaline shot I needed: “24 Frames,” one of my favorites and, as it fortunately turns out, one of Tall Paul’s lose-your-shit songs too. Because that meant there were two of us screaming lyrics through our masks, waving our arms, and leaning over the rail, not just me. And in my case, fingering chords; the song is one of the only ones I can play on the Strat I bought a year ago when I started writing songs. Even on busy days when I convince myself that things like working or cleaning something take precedence over plugging in and playing (with) the guitar, when I walk past the room it’s in I stop and strum “24 Frames.” I’m pretty sure I left bruises on Tall Paul when I grabbed his arm and shoulder.
The usual folks were shouting out their requests, but I honestly didn’t care what got played. I always go to a Jason Isbell show without expectations and still hear all my favorites. This night was no exception, but it transcended the usual. Shows can be special for many reasons: The first time seeing a particular band, or watching an old favorite on a night where they take it to another level. Catching someone you thought you’d never get to see. Meeting new show friends in line or on the barrier and maybe even forming a show family for an evening or a tour. (Like when an Asbury Park photographer dubs you and your new friends “the Ladies of Social D” and your picture is featured on the Stone Pony website.) But mostly it’s just an artist being the right one at the right place to give you exactly what you need most at that moment. I needed it all: a joyful front-and-center experience, exquisite lyrics and one of the tightest-sounding bands around, the presence of an artist who was both soothing my soul and kicking my ass. I think for me that last thing is what really makes a show more than just a show.
So I whether was forgetting to breathe or losing my breath singing along, or standing quietly drinking in lyrics, or mesmerized in the lucky spot right in front of where Jason was doing all his solos (the great thing about the 400 Unit is if I’m not watching his fingers on the frets I can watch Sadler Vaden’s), I was finally, firmly locked in that place I’d missed for so long. Where time stops and only the necessary parts of your brain are out of standby mode, but those parts are really LIT.
I teared up during “If We Were Vampires.” No joke, I LITERALLY cannot listen to that song all the way through. It’s too good. It’s too perfect. Too sad. Too much me and my husband, too close to the heart. We’ve been married 39 years as of last month and met each other 43 years ago this week, so the song has special resonance. I love it but I have to turn it off when I hear it. It’s too much. But I couldn’t that night; Jason was just a few feet away so I had to listen and let the raw beauty of the words assault me like I was being stabbed. Sometimes you have to face your deepest fears, and what better place than where you feel the most secure?
“Be Afraid” was my Covid song. I heard it in the car (where I first hear most songs I love) near the beginning of lockdown. I turned it up, rolled down the windows, and told my new pandemic pup “This is Jason Isbell,” and she looked at me like, “I’m from Georgia, hon, really?” And my whole life has been about being afraid and doing it anyway. I listened to the song incessantly all year, it was the last song I played in 2020 and the first in 2021, and hearing it live for the first time was overwhelming.
So throughout the set I went from the depths to the heights and took in guitar riffs like they were black-tar heroin and tried not to think about when it would end. There was an encore, of course, and a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Sway,” and as for what happened to me during that, a cigarette and a splash of cold water afterward might have been appropriate. Those guitars WRECKED ME.
Tall Paul and I stood around for a while in a fruitless quest for a setlist, and then I bought a T-shirt on the fly and stepped out into pouring rain. I held the shirt over my head during the half-mile walk to the car. When I started the engine, the radio was playing Tom Petty’s “You Wreck Me.” Yes, you did.
I got caught in a huge traffic jam trying to get down to Center City, then in a few hard, harrowing rain squalls, and another half-hour mess in Chester where they’d taken I-95 down to one lane. It took me an hour and a half to get home, then another hour to settle down. I was in a useless daze all day yesterday. I started the day by playing “24 Frames” on the guitar before breakfast and ended it playing a live album version after my Zoom class was over.
But as of this morning there were Frank Turner tickets to buy at 10:00 and work to do, and I’m seeing Cracker tonight in Wilmington. It’s been more than two years since I stood at David Lowery’s feet or watched Johnny Hickman’s fingers, so it will be a great night one way or the other. There is a mask requirement at the venue, but that won’t stop some asshole from screaming for “Low” all night AS IF. Tall Paul won’t be there because he’s not a Cracker fan and he was leaving for Riot Fest yesterday. I’m sure Riot Fest will be a blast but this is not the year I’d choose to go. I can find transcendence closer to home. All I have to do is show up ready for it.