Music Medicine Service Jason Isbell Performed at the Austin Library Last Night: Songwriter Delivers Phenomenal Solo for JoyRx Fundraiser – Music
Jason Isbell performing at the Austin Central Library for a Children’s Cancer Association / JoyRx fundraiser. (Photo courtesy of Joy Rx/Bloom Communications)
Among a crowd of well-heeled philanthropists and doctors at the Austin Public Library, I find an empty chair and introduce myself to the person sitting next to me. “Are you a donor? ” I ask. “No,” she replies. “I’m a palliative care physician…and also a fan of Jason Isbell from Alabama.”
I ask her if she thinks the host and charity beneficiary of the night’s talks, JoyRx, did a critical job. “They do awesome work,” she said. “Medicine doesn’t go that far – music therapy is important.
The evening begins with an auction, with half of the packages focusing on music. A round of golf with Western Swing’s John Daly, Asleep at the Wheel frontman Ray Benson, cost $5,000. The 50 two-ticket packages to a private, local Band of Horses show sell for $500 each. A Gibson Les Paul, signed by Isbell, is also offered in the $5,000 range.
“I’ve played this guitar backstage and it’s a good guitar,” Isbell exclaimed later that night. “They’re heavy though – not sure if you’re a Les Paul guy, but get a wide strap.”
As if the buyer was planning to do concerts with it.
After the lively auctions, speakers tout the work of JoyRx and videos show young people – children struggling with hospitalizations, serious health issues, surgeries, developmental delays and terrible illnesses – having interactions positive and sometimes life-changing music. A local mother, whose son Julio has Down syndrome, testifies to the inspiring impact of the music program he participates in and notes that being able to express himself through choosing songs gives him a rare sense of control. Danielle York, CEO of the affiliated Children’s Cancer Association, announces that JoyRx, with an already established local presence, has opened a downtown office.
It’s an unusual introduction to a performance that bears no resemblance to a traditional show, including the setting: a brightly lit event space in the new Central Library where the stage is surrounded by a conference-style projection screen and The main visual ambiance consists of three light strings. Isbell, wearing a black-on-black suit and playing a custom Martin acoustic, casually walks in and the sound is dialed in as he plays “24 Frames.” From the second song, the las “Travelling Alone”, he is in his bag.
I love seeing esteemed conductors perform solo. It’s typically indicative of their unvarnished artistic nature – for better or for worse. The songwriter, whose name is usually followed by ‘& the 400 Unit’, delivers everything you want in this kind of performance, although he admits it doesn’t sound familiar: “It’s been a while that I didn’t play a set by myself – I like that, but I forget that if I stop playing… nothing happens.
The former Drive By Truckers member dwells on the intimate atmosphere of the evening, sharing witty and gripping anecdotes including the fact that he confessed to late song charmer John Prine that he had scammed “Hello in There” featuring “Traveling Alone” – to which Prine replied: “Oh no, no, no – you didn’t rip me off with that song.” Isbell follows him playing the even more Prine-esque “Last of my Kind.” “If We Were Vampires” (introduced with a tale by his wife, musician Amanda Shires, telling stop looking Accusers and write a song).
Considering this was a fundraiser appearance, I expect Isbell to play a handful of tracks, but the Alabama singer/guitarist instead plays what would have represented a full festival slot. Without his typically impressive backing band, his guitar dexterity and creativity are on display – haunting musical breaks on songs like “Only Children” that elicit mid-song applause. Her voice, going from relaxed to high-pitched and cutting in a hurry, sounds phenomenal throughout.
Isbell’s superpower, of course, is having one or more tattoo-worthy lyrics in every song, a strength epitomized by the closing pair “Speed Trap Town” and “Cover Me Up,” which s installs with the line: “A heart on the run keep your hand on the gun, you can’t trust anyone. Although he briefly discussed the charity angle of the evening, except to say it’s a great cause, at the end of the set, the emotion is strong and anyone who has listened can clearly feel: the music is medicine.