The best new love song I heard in 2017 had an unlikely name: “If We Were Vampires.” In this ballad from his album The Nashville Sound, Jason Isbell sings that love is precious because we’re NOT vampires — i.e., even the greatest marriage or love affair won’t last eternally.
“It’s knowing that this can’t on forever,” he sings in the song’s devastating chorus. “Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone/Maybe we’ll get 40 years together/But one day I’ll be gone/Or one day you’ll be gone.”
Isbell, an Alabama native and a former member of the band Drive-By Truckers, won two Grammys on Jan. 28, for Best American Roots Album (for The Nashville Sound) and Best American Roots Song (for “If We Were Vampires”). These were the same categories he won his two prior Grammys in, in 2016. On Feb. 5, a little more than a week after the Grammys, he was in Red Bank with his band, The 400 Unit, to perform at the Count Basie Theatre.
The show included nine of the 10 songs from The Nashville Sound, with “If We Were Vampires” appearing as the final encore, capping the show in wistful way. The show as a whole, though, was certainly not all in this mode, ranging from the pulse-pounding rock of “Anxiety” and “Decoration Day” to the almost jaunty country of “If It Takes a Lifetime” and “Codeine.” Danny Clinch, a leading rock photographer as well as a blues-rock musician, joined the band for their first encore, the Stonesy “Super 8.”
As a lyricist, Isbell, 39, is definitely among the best of his generation. “24 Frames” had an anthemic feel that belied its questioning lyrics: “You thought God was an architect, now you know/He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.” And “Traveling Alone,” with lyrics like “I know every town worth passing through/But what good does knowing do/With no one to show it to,” felt absolutely timeless, like something you’d expect Hank Williams or Willie Nelson to have written years ago.
Isbell — who has a somewhat stoic vocal style, and takes guitar solos that are usually short and to the point — has molded The 400 Unit in his image. Derry deBorja (on keyboards), Chad Gamble (on drums), Jimbo Hart (on bass), Sadler Varen (on guitar) and Isbell’s wife, Amanda Shires (on violin and essential backing and duet vocals) constitute a versatile, sensitive combo. They rarely go for the showy move but know how to work in unison to create an appropriate atmosphere for whatever Isbell is singing about.
Here is the show’s setlist and, below it, a gallery of photos from the show, by Wes Orshoski:
“Hope the High Road”
“Something More Than Free”
“White Man’s World”
“Last of My Kind”
“Chaos and Clothes”
“Flying Over Water”
“Cover Me Up”
“If It Takes a Lifetime”
“Super 8” (with Danny Clinch)
“If We Were Vampires”