Jason Isbell Ascends Americana Ranks

Jason Isbell has become one of the best contemporary Americana songwriters. He headlines the Pabst on Tuesday night. Plus: new music from Space Raft, stream the latest from The Bang Bang, and our weekly roundup of live music.

Fresh off two Grammy Award wins earlier this month, Jason Isbell seems to be comfortably settling into the archetypal role of the maturing singer-songwriter. He’s certainly put in his dues—playing in roots rock band Drive-By Truckers for six years before quitting in 2007, resurrecting his career as a solo musician and overcoming the perils of alcoholism, which was detailed in 2013’s achingly autobiographical record Southeastern.

While in other genres getting old usually brings upon a significant loss in relevance, roots music has always put more emphasis on experience than youth, and the 37-year-old still is finding new ways to express his life of sordid struggles. He’s set to bring his timeless story songs to The Pabst Theater stage, 144 E. Wells St., on Tuesday night at 8 p.m. Americana duo Shovels and Rope opens the show.

Despite the Alabama native’s sunnier outlook these days, 2015’s Something More Than Free, which won the Grammy for Best Americana Album, proved that Isbell hasn’t gone completely soft. While the instrumentation has certainly become more up-tempo, many of the characters imbuing these heartfelt songs remain submerged in the grime of down-on-your-luck, blue collar workers. “And every night I dream I’m drowning in the dirt/ But I thank God for the work,” Isbell sings on the title track.

Slowly, Isbell has morphed from fallen Drive-By Truckers member into one of the best contemporary Americana songwriters. It’s clear from his past that change didn’t just happen overnight. On the freewheeling album opener, “If It Takes a Lifetime,” he perhaps explains his devotion to his craft. “My day will come, if it takes a lifetime.” His day certainly seems to have come.

Space Raft take off again

Blaring from the speakers of ostensibly every backyard party during the summer of 2014, Space Raft’s unstoppable self-titled debut packed an endless stream of infectious ‘60s power pop hooks into its science fiction tales. The album was really, really good (so good, in fact, it landed at No. 2 on my best albums of 2014). But even though the band got some good national press, they still didn’t seem to catch fire like they should. That might change as they returned with a new single on Spin last week called “Mountain” and announced an April 15 release date for sophomore album Rubicon.

This Saturday the band also celebrates another new release, the 7 inch “Paper Airplanes” b/w “Iron Eagle,” at Bremen Cafe, 901 E. Clarke St., with openers Dream Vacation and the second season premiere of Rock and Roll Remote Controller which includes a music video for “Paper Airplanes.” The show starts at 9 p.m. and there is no cover charge.

Stream of the Week

If you missed The Bang Bang last Friday night at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn, give a listen to the band’s latest release, the three-song EP Funny Love. It’s a short burst of bubbly power pop and searing arena rock that grows more teeth with each spin. Make sure to catch them at their next show, an opening slot for NOBUNNY at Cactus Club, 2496 S. Wentworth Ave., on March 6. Indonesian Junk and Big Wig round out the bill.

This Week in Live Music

Tuesday, February 23: Jason Isbell with Shovels and Rope at The Pabst Theater, 8 p.m. ($35.50) – (116 W. Wisconsin Ave., PabstTheater.org)

Also: Cannibal Corpse with Obituary, Cryptopsy and Abysmal Dawn at Turner Hall Ballroom, 7:30 p.m. ($25) – (1032 N. 4th St., PabstTheater.org)

Wednesday, February 24: Warren Haynes with The Ashes and Dust Band at The Pabst Theater, 8 p.m. ($27.50 advance; $30 door) – (116 W. Wisconsin Ave., PabstTheater.org)

Also: Jukebox The Ghost with The Family Crest at Turner Hall Ballroom, 8 p.m. ($15) – (1032 N. 4th St., PabstTheater.org)

Thursday, February 25: Lotus with Michal Menert & the Pretty Fantastics at Turner Hall Ballroom, 8:30 p.m. (Second show Friday) ($22 advance; $25 door) – (1032 N. 4th St., PabstTheater.org)

Also: Low Down Sound with Rocket Paloma and Faux Fiction at Cactus Club, 9 p.m. ($5) – (2496 S. Wentworth Ave., CactusClubMilwaukee.com)

And: Ceiling Spirits at Shank Hall, 8 p.m. (FREE) – (1434 N. Farwell Ave., ShankHall.com)

Friday, February 26: Migos at The Rave, 8 p.m. ($26.50-$31.50) – (2401 W. Wisconsin Ave., TheRave.com)

Also: Work (album release) with Tigernite and Body Futures at Company Brewing, 10 p.m. – (735 E. Center St., CompanyBrewing.com)

And: Wolf Eyes with Timmy’s Organism and Video at Cactus Club, 9 p.m. ($10) – (2496 S. Wentworth Ave., CactusClubMilwaukee.com)

And: Liar’s Trial (album release) with Doghouse Flowers and The Glacial Speed at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn, 9 p.m. ($5) – (1001 E. Locust St., Linnemans.com)

Saturday, February 27: Space Raft  (7 inch release) with Dream Vacation and Rock and Roller Remote Controller premiere at Bremen Cafe, 9 p.m. (FREE) – (901 E. Clarke St., BremenCafe.com)

Also: Metavari with The Demix and adoptahighway at Cactus Club, 9 p.m. ($7) – (2496 S. Wentworth Ave., CactusClubMilwaukee.com)

And: Surgeons in Heat with What Tyrants, Athletic Supply and Platinum Boys DJs at High Dive, 9 p.m. (FREE) – (701 E. Center St., HighDiveMKE.com)

And: Rhythm Changes with Cree Myles + B-Free and Queen Tut at Mad Planet, 9 p.m. ($5) – (533 E. Center St, Mad-Planet.net)

Sunday, February 28: Glassjaw with Silver Snakes and City of Ghosts at The Rave, 7 p.m. ($21.50-$26.50) – (2401 W. Wisconsin Ave., TheRave.com)

Also: Pepe Aguilar en Concierto at The Riverside Theater, 8:15 p.m. ($45-$125) – (116 W. Wisconsin Ave., PabstTheater.org)



Kevin is a freelance writer residing in Milwaukee. He’s contributed to The Shepherd Express, Third Coast Daily, Pop Matters and the sadly now-defunct A.V. Club Milwaukee. He looks forward to forging a deeper connection with the city’s impressive music scene during his gig as a Music Notes blogger. His talents include music criticism, riding a bicycle, drinking tasty beers and a crafty croquet swing. His weaknesses comprise Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, professional wrestling and his ever-growing record collection. He’s in desperate need to find more physical (and hard drive) space for the exceptional albums Milwaukee musicians keep churning out.