Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires find the light in the dark at ‘Austin City Limits’ taping

9:55 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017 Music
Suzanne Cordeiro// American-Statesman
07/14/17 Suzanne Cordeiro/ for American-Statesman Jason Isbell, along with special guests Mountain Goats, performed at ACL Live in Austin, Texas.

On Monday afternoon, the moon passed between the sun and the earth, causing a brief total eclipse in some parts of the country, but only a partial sun blockage in Austin. For a few minutes, darkness commingled with the light. But only for a little bit.

Later Monday night, the same thing happened at ACL Live when the Americana husband-and-wife duo of Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, fresh off a sold-out ACL run in July, took the stage for a double-header “Austin City Limits” taping.

The songs of Isbell and Shires have often lived in that space between light and dark, often embracing both on the same song. But with Isbell and Shires, the light always finds a way to win, and sometimes turns that darkness into a singalong. 

Take, for example, the way the years-sober Isbell explained the permanence of the upbeat drug dirge “Codeine” in his setlist:

“That’s an example of something that was funny once, and if you live long enough, it becomes funny again. And a few years ago it got more hilarious than it was in the first place.”

Or another example might be the way Shires shrugged off some technical difficulties and excessive feedback at the beginning of her set:

“Oh! I do love me a technical difficulty,” she joked as technicians came to the stage. “At least this isn’t as bad as that time on the Opry where I had to sneeze and cough at the same time.”

Shires, backed by her three-piece band, started the night off with a rousing performance of “My Love (The Storm),” deftly wielding her fiddle as both a tool and a weapon. Every time she picked up the bow, the crowd was held rapt. That instrument combined with her voice on songs like “My Love” or “Look Like a Bird” can inflict sorrow or elicit frission with the simplest inflection. If you came to the theater Monday night and didn’t feel anything, check your pulse.

Isbell, who was named an honorary Texan last time he and his wife played in Austin, joined Shires for a duet on “Wasted and Rollin’.” The two co-wrote the song on the way to Nashville in the early stages of their relationship. (The story of the song’s origin, which involves bats, snow in Alabama in June and an apartment above a bar, hasn’t lost its charm.)

After a 20-minute intermission, Isbell took the stage with his 400 Unit band, which includes Shires. Most of the songs from his set were from the band’s latest album “The Nashville Sound.”

Kicking things off with “Hope the High Road,” a plea for positivity that, with its refrains of “I’ve heard enough of the white man’s blues, I’ve sang enough about myself” and “We'll ride the ship down dumping buckets overboard, there can't be more of them than us” felt more appropriate than ever, Isbell’s set was raucuous and contemplative in equal measure. 

But no matter how great Isbell or Shires sound on their own, they sound infinitely better when they collaborate. They make each other better on stage, and it’s evident they love sharing a performative space. Reveling in the two of them sharing knowing glances while playing was one of the best parts of watching this taping, which was also livestreamed.

Appropriately, they started to end the set with two duets, the hauntingly beautiful love ballad “If We Were Vampires” and the solar ecipse-specific John Prine cover “Clocks and Spoons.”

And when Isbell ended the whole show with a seven-minute rock song about anxiety, the crowd sung along and swayed to the bombastic guitar chords, already finding the light amid the darkness.  

View full experience