A year after Father John Misty unveiled God’s Favorite Customer, Isbell and his band, the superlative 400 Unit (which includes renowned fiddle player Amanda Shires, Isbell’s wife), find themselves on the road with Misty and Jade Bird. The trek is proving to be an ideal match-up for two of the best songwriters in American rock, and they have plenty in common -- to the point where it’s shocking no one’s made the call to pair them up on a co-headlining tour before.
Pristine tenors with exceptional musical acumen aside, Tillman and Isbell share a brave propensity to stare, unblinkingly, into the churn of crisis. Disintegrating relationships, loosening grips on mental health, the pressures that come with striving to be a good partner (and father, in Isbell’s case), and facing all of the above in a world gone mad and growing madder by the minute -- none of this is off-limits or too far afield for either songwriter. Isbell’s "White Man's World" from 2017’s The Nashville Sound is a master class in this allergy to bullshit put to paper, and the song directly confronts the racism, sexism and classism that shaped the American experiment in a radical call for empathy. Even his contribution to the soundtrack for A Star Is Born, “Maybe It’s Time,” throws to this (and played over well in Brooklyn).
Tillman explores the consequences of these destructive forces across both 2017’s Pure Comedy and God’s Favorite Customer, and though he’s the one who called the planet a “godless rock that refuses to die” (on Pure Comedy’s “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution”), it could’ve been an Isbell line. On their own terms, they each unpack the scariest issues of the moment while condensing them into songs listeners can absorb and sing along to, as both artists were met with a near-constant sing-along from the crowd of 5,000 that gathered to join them in the rain in Prospect Park.
But neither Isbell nor Tillman remained fixated on the doom and gloom, and both managed to keep from overwhelming the masses by working plenty of swoon-worthy balladry and deeply funny banter into their sets. Tillman and Isbell’s love songs are just as potent as the discourse of their heaviest cuts, and those remain rapturous crowd pleasers on this current jaunt. Isbell rarely plays “Cover Me Up” if Shires isn’t present (which, given her own career and the touring it requires, can lead to weeks or months apart), but when she is, it’s a breathtaking duet and an intimate glimpse into the love they share.
The finale “If We Were Vampires” has them both considering their mortality while celebrating the eternity of their love, and was just as stunning. 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear was one long love letter to his wife, Emma, and Tillman soared through the songs off that album that directly pull from significant moments their marriage, from the moment they met (set closer “I Went to the Store One Day”) to their wedding and honeymoon (“Chateau Lobby #4 [in C for Two Virgins],” complete with mariachi interlude courtesy of his killer brass section).
In between songs, Isbell and Tillman kept their musings brief (and briefer than most would’ve liked, as one dude in the crowd actually screamed “I WANT BANTER!” five songs into Tillman’s set). Isbell praised Tillman and his band, joking that they played “songs that I can listen to where I don’t get mad” from backstage; Tillman praised Isbell and Bird in turn, but first took a few minutes to try to find a hair tie for his mane and requested a scrunchie, which one fan happily met. (He was surprised that he wasn’t met with “a blizzard of scrunchies,” which, same.)
The new material popped, too: though the well-worn gems from their catalogues were roundly applauded, both Isbell and Misty -- who’ve been hard at work on the follow-ups to both The Nashville Sound and God’s Favorite Customer -- played brand new material. Isbell’s “Overseas” is clearly a throw to making a relationship work across long distances (“Does your heart rest easy where you are? / Do they treat you like a star?”), while Misty’s fresh cuts (name TBD) offered a stylistic gear-shift with ‘80s synths, harmonica solos and a drum beat Ronnie Spector would covet. In spite of the dreary weather -- a Misty night for Misty and Co., if you will -- Isbell, Tillman and the magnificent musicians that join them onstage each night proved that they should’ve circled their tour buses a long time ago. We’re all the luckier they finally did just that.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Father Johh Misty and Jade Bird continue their tour tonight (June 20) in Canandaigua, N.Y.; they wrap the run in Tulsa, Okla. on June 29.