JASON ISBELL / Photo: Erika Goldring / All Eyes Media

Father John Misty and Jason Isbell Team Up to Take on Modern Angst in Berkeley

Putting two of America's top emerging songwriters of the past decade together makes for arguably the best combo tour of 2019.

It’s a hot summery Saturday night in Berkeley and it doesn’t look like there will be any of the region’s typical cool fog rolling in during this co-headliner show. Jason Isbell and Father John Misty have both seen their stars rise rapidly in recent years and the concept of seeing them both outdoors here at the beautiful Berkeley Greek Theater instead of in separate theater shows is appealing. The duo are using California as a launch pad for their national tour, utilizing the Golden State’s laid back good vibes as a foundation.

Both singer/songwriters are known for their deeply personal tunes that address modern angst in a cathartic manner, whether they’re writing about themselves or branching off into character studies. The tour therefore seems like one of the best combo tours offered in quite some time. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit come out swinging with a rocking rendition of their zeitgeist hit, “Hope the High Road”. When Isbell sings, “Last year was a son of a bitch for nearly everyone we know”, it speaks to so many having trouble making ends meet in modern day America. The one percent may be enjoying a booming stock market, but some 40 percent of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck and this is the reality that Isbell seems to have tapped into here.

There’s some tasty slide guitar and the band sounds great right from the start, needing no time to get it dialed in as bands in the first week of a tour often do each night. “White Man’s World” taps into another angst-ridden theme, as Isbell sings of how “We’re all carrying one big burden, sharing one fate” and muses that “The man upstairs must have taken a vacation”. Isbell delivers the contemplative “Elephant” mostly solo acoustic and gets a big cheer at the end, but the audience seems in a bit of a daze overall. Maybe it’s the heat because the Greek’s tiered stone slabs are actually feeling warm to sit on and the audience is kind of cramped in sitting down.

It would seem to make more sense if everyone stood up to get some more space and act like they’re at a rock ‘n’ roll show, but passive crowds have been an ongoing issue at the Greek in recent years due to the Bay Area’s existential housing crisis forcing younger music fans out. When the band launches into the rocking “Cumberland Gap”, there’s brief hope that the song could shift the momentum and get these people up on their feet. But alas it is not to be and the only move is to go down lower into the pit area where the real fans are getting into the show.

It’s like another world down lower as fans are standing in attention and the music becomes more impactful, with “Flying Over Water” as a prime example. Isbell sings out with a soulful heartfelt delivery, with both he and his lead guitarist ripping off hot solos to enhance the song. Isbell gets introspective on “Cover Me Up,” going solo acoustic again to sing of how he “sobered up and swore off that stuff”, conjuring a big cheer of appreciation. It’s only too bad that Isbell’s wife Amanda Shires isn’t here on fiddle, a dynamic part-time role she plays in the band when she’s not touring on her own behind one of 2018’s best albums To the Sunset. It’s hard sometimes not want to imagine how great a band Isbell and Shires could put together if they fully merged musical forces (like married couple Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi have done so successfully.)

Isbell weaves a charming tale about writing “Maybe It’s Time” for the soundtrack of A Star Is Born, with actor Bradley Cooper sending back his own demo version that Isbell waited five hours to respond to without realizing that Cooper was waiting in angst-ridden anticipation for approval. A charged cover of old school Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well” gets the Greek rocking as the sun starts to lower, while the bluesy “Decoration Day” from Isbell’s days in Drive-By Truckers delivers a stirring moment before he closes the 90-minute set on a contemplative note with “If We Were Vampires”.

Setbreak is leisurely with the Greek’s new expanded concessions and facilities that make it much easier to take a leak, grab a brew and get back into position than it used to be. An electric surge flows through the crowd from the moment Father John Misty hits the stage with “Hangout at the Gallows”, as it quickly becomes clear that this is his audience. Maybe the fact that it’s dark now too has something to do with it, but there’s just more vibe in the air as Misty (aka Josh Tillman) commands the stage with a quasi-shamanic presence. Misty and his eight-member band raise the vibe further on “Date Night”, getting a rocking energy flowing as he sings of wanting to vanquish evil but having lost his mojo.

His songs are full of such intriguing lyrics, although he actually seems to have his mojo working quite well as the vibe keeps on growing on “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings”. Here the three-piece horn section helps elevate the sound as Misty sings about the famous cemetery in LA where Hollywood legends are buried (and where bands play intimate shows on the grounds in the Masonic Lodge).

The early part of the set feels like one zeitgeist hit after another as the band delivers the trippy “Mr. Tillman”. Here he wins a big cheer as he name drops Isbell — as in fact done on the original recording — when he’s greeted at a hotel by a bellman who says, “Jason Isbell’s here as well, And he seemed a little worried about you.” This makes it seem like a tour of destiny and it’s only too bad that Isbell doesn’t come out to jam, although Misty will soon relate that improv isn’t really his band’s thing. It’s a shame since he’s got so many great tunes that seem to end abruptly after a few minutes.

The horn section shines again on “Total Entertainment Forever,” one of Misty’s most insightful tunes as he touches on a Brave New World type of theme with lyrics detailing the modern contradictions of how a race of “demented monkeys” can provided such an array of entertainment options to distract ourselves. The set begins to take on a cinematic vibe, with Misty as the narrator of a world on the edge between a new age and a dark dystopia on tunes like “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution”.The only issue is that the songs keep ending after three or four minutes — just when it feels like the audience is really getting into it, the song ends in what feels like abrupt fashion.

Misty seems to sense this discontent from some in the audience during “Ballad of the Dying Man”, which gets extended a little further as the band vamps out on the groove for the longest song of the night so far. Misty comments on how the song came close to being a “Grateful Dead reckoning”, but notes that “the only problem is none of us enjoy soloing”. And so it is explained why there won’t be any big jams here, just a string of great tunes with memorable lyrics.

“Real Love Baby” shimmers in the Berkeley evening with its tight beat and infectious chorus about living in the moment, conjuring as close to a dance party as the Greek will see tonight. The title track from 2018’s God’s Favorite Customer LP has an almost gospel feel on the other hand, with pleading emotions on a lonely search for companionship as Misty continues to mix it up thematically.

Another spark surges through the audience when the coveted “I Love You, Honeybear” closes out the set, with the ladies seeming particularly smitten. Here Misty sings of what seems like a doomed romance, yet he still pleads for his honeybear not to give in to despair. One of the night’s top moments follows in the encore with the rollicking “I’m Writing a Novel”, a tune from Misty’s 2012 debut album Fear Fun where he conjures both a sound and a vibe recalling the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer”. There’s a gonzo element here that captures Misty using all his tools — snarky lyrics, bluesy swagger, drug references from deep inside the counterculture — to deliver a modern day classic that lights up the night.

Whether America will be able to rise up and prevent the current world gone mad from sinking into an irrevocable dystopian decline remains to be seen. But it seems safe to say that Father John Misty and Jason Isbell will continue to serve as troubadours commenting in song about the modern condition whichever way this the wild ride goes.