Father John Misty, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Erin Rae
White Oak Music Hall
June 28, 2019
Friday night's co-headling tour at White Oak Music Hall, featuring Jason Isbell and Father John Misty, was touch and go for a while. Heavy rains in the Heights had me checking email and Twitter every 10-20 minutes for a cancellation notice. Happily, the clouds moved on just before the show, leaving a soggy lawn but surprisingly pleasant temperatures.
Those of a spiritual inclination can take that however they want. Perhaps the rain gods favored the wholesome, family-oriented Isbell, or maybe they're of a more wicked bent and found succor with the hedonistic Misty (ne Josh Tillman). Who are we to judge?
This tour was weird enough to begin with, reportedly instigated by FJM name checking Isbell in "Mr. Tillman." The two headliners approach the current political climate with vastly divergent viewpoints. Isbell takes a 'man the parapets' approach, as he did in opening number "Hope the High Road," bellowing, "there can't be more of them than us." Meanwhile, a sardonic Misty describes future Earth as a "wonderful place" littered with VR-addicted corpses in "Total Entertainment Forever."
Having Isbell at the height of his popularity open for FJM (a decision reportedly made via coin flip) feels a bit odd, but he made the most of his abbreviated setlist. Chalk it up to his critical accolades or a combination of emerging from both the shadow of his former band and addiction, but for the first time since I've been seeing him solo, he didn't play any Drive-By Truckers songs.
That's because he didn't need to, knocking every song out of the park with his band the 400 Unit (including wife/fiddle player Amanda Shires). These included a superlative rendition of "Flying Over Water," a heartfelt "Maybe It's Time" (his Star is Born song that proved, in Isbell's words, "that crazy space raccoon learned how to sing"), and crowd favorite "Cover Me Up." And as if the song selection wasn't enough, a cool breeze blew across the WOMH lawn near the end of his set.
I'm not much on epiphanies, but low 70s in late June is about as close to religious ecstasy as we get here.
Almost more eye-opening was how many folks stuck around for Father John Misty. Nothing against him, but going into tonight, I'd have assumed Houston's notoriously eager-to-beat-traffic crowds would start making for the exits once Isbell finished. If anything the audience was more vocal during FJM's set. And those electing to stick with it were treated to the Beatles-esque stylings of "Hangout at the Gallows" as well as "Holy Shit," his pre-apocalyptic take on "We Didn't Start the Fire."
But this city surprises you. There's capacity here for both Isbell's heart-on-your-sleeves approach and Father John Misty's sneery fatalism. Their co-headlining tour is a yin and yang of sincerity and cynicism that works in spite of itself.
How Was The Opener? Erin Rae, a former backup singer, released her first solo album Putting On Airs last year, drawing comparisons to everyone from Dusty Springfield to Janis Ian. She was joined by 400 Unit guitarist Sadler Vaden for a couple songs, including "Can't Cut Loose." It takes a lot of guts to stand in front of an impatient outdoor crowd with nothing but an acoustic guitar, but Rae won the crowd over in spite of, as she put it, "keeping things melancholy."
Personal Bias: I'm a fan of both guys and had no idea how they were going to pull this off.
The Crowd: Beards or vape pens, guys. Pick one.
Overheard In The Crowd: "Do I need a jacket?"
Random Notebook Dump: That Taylor Swift co-headlining tour probably isn't happening.*
*Listen to "Total Entertainment Forever."