Concerts are for feeling. It seems simplistic and a little emo, but it's the truth about our motivation for attending. We gather - young and old, tattooed or not, some folks wearing the t-shirt of the band playing because they haven't heard that they shouldn't "be that guy" - in halls and auditoriums and amphitheaters and on porches to connect. Not just with other people who dig the same songs or with an artist who's crafted art that speaks into or salves our lives, but with feelings we usually quell and entomb because our worlds - filled with comforts and frantic with busyness - render true, deep feelings quite difficult to locate. We think we don't need them.
Good live music - soul-drenching, honest, and intentional - smashes the sarcophogus of our dispassion and defibrillates our consciousness. This probably comes off as earnest and sentimental, but I'm okay with it, because we need to be more of that: last night at Middle of the Map Fest, Jason Isbell and his band The 400 Unit enabled a soul jolt, if you were willing to accept it.
I've seen Isbell a few times and each experience is a different kind of revival. When he was touring for Southeastern, his first solo record, his recent sobriety and redemption made the show feel like a baptism. When I saw him in support of his latest album, Something More than Free, the vibe was inspirational: tunes about resisting the urge to live inside your phone and working hard to be your own person dominated the album. I don't know what kind of sacred Isbell's newest album The Nashville Sound is going to be. Maybe a prayer or a hymn. Maybe a "Hallelujah Chorus." Maybe it's the new and better "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."
But last night onstage at the Uptown Theater he played a new song with his wife, Amanda Shires, and it made me feel something I couldn't quite place, and it's bit at me since. It's called "If We Were Vampires," and it's slow and dirgish and about mortality and love. Like he does on "Elephant" and "Speed Trap Town," Isbell writes lines with literary precision that makes his songs feel more like short stories than something that pops up on a Spotify playlist. He's Garcia Marquez and Morrison when he pens lyrics like "veins through the skin like a faded tattoo" and "sharecropper eyes and the hair almost all gone."
I don't know what "If We Were Vampires" made me feel. I'm hoping I find out soon when the track gets released. Eric leaned over to me during the first few lines of it and told me he'd been thinking about death lately, and that the song wasn't going to help. Yet there was something significant about seeing Isbell sing this song, in which he writes "Maybe we'll get 40 years together" with his wife next to him. Not all songs are autobiographical, but when you see those two look at each other - he with a guitar, her with a violin - it gives the whole experience a different kind of weight. Like, you realize he means what he's singing about. Authentic is a word that gets used too much, but this moment is deserving of that description.
Here are a few lines for reference, since you can't find the tune yet:
If we were vampires and death was a joke / we'd go out on the sidewalk and smoke / laugh at all the lovers and their plans / I wouldn't feel the need to hold your hand.
Maybe time running out is a gift / I'll work hard till the end of my shift / and give you every second I can find / and hope it isn't me who's left behind.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that, if you're lucky, sometimes you go to a concert to hang out with a pal or support an artist you appreciate or take photos for your podcast, and then a really good artist creates something special, something you didn't expect would happen. They remind you of something you forgot or you didn't know in the first place.
Jason did that for our town last night, at least for me. "If We Were Vampires" is going to haunt me in a good way for a while now, and I'll picture him singing it to and with his wife when I hum the song.
I'm also going to hold my girl's hand more often, because whatever anything means, I was reminded last night that there's really nothing worth doing more than that.