Songwriter leads his 400 Unit through a strong set of soul-inspired rock and Americana
Jason Isbell’s new record is titled The Nashville Sound, but during his Sunday night performance at the Ohio Theatre, the Alabama-raised songwriter proved to be so much more than a country musician.
For much of the night, Isbell and his five fellow musicians in the 400 Unit put on a real-deal rock show, complete with crunchy guitars and Zeppelin-inspired solos and Isbell’s full-throated, sandy-around-the-edges vocals.
Although he’s only 38, Isbell performs like a seasoned professional, probably because he’s been a singer, songwriter and guitarist since his teens, when session musician David Hood mentored the young upstart. Hood’s son, Patterson, co-founded the Drive-By Truckers, a band Isbell joined up with from 2001 to 2007.
A couple of Isbell’s Drive-By Truckers tunes made it into Sunday night’s set — “Decoration Day,” the title track of the DBT’s 2003 album, and closing song “Never Gonna Change,” off 2004 album The Dirty South. But ever since Isbell’s 2013 breakout album, Southeastern, which garnered him widespread critical acclaim and several Americana Music Awards, the frontman has been known more for his solo material. Accordingly, most of the songwriter's set drew from his three most recent records.
Few bandleaders have perfected the triple-threat package like Isbell, who’s an equally strong singer, songwriter and guitarist. The man is an absolute beast on rhythm and lead guitar, and his dusky voice ably filled the Ohio Theatre, whether at the top of his range or at a more intimate, low register.
The detailed imagery in his story songs and vulnerable confessionals cut through in powerful ways, especially during quieter, acoustic-driven songs like “Speed Trap Town,” off the 2015 album Something More than Free. Certain lines that go by nearly unnoticed on the studio version of the track landed with more clarity and gravitas in a live setting. “How long can they keep you in the ICU? / Veins through the skin like a faded tattoo,” Isbell sings as the song’s main character lingers in the hospital with his ailing father, pondering whether it’s time to hit the road and leave everything behind.
By the end of the song, with only an acoustic guitar and some intermittent bottleneck-slide riffs, Isbell lets you know what the son ultimately decided, but he does it by showing, not telling:
“The road got blurry when the sun came up
So I slept a couple hours in the pickup truck
Drank a cup of coffee by an Indian mound
A thousand miles away from that speed trap town”
Even though The Nashville Sound was recorded, as you might have guessed, in Nashville, Isbell’s songs betray an upbringing steeped in the the Muscle Shoals sound — emphasis on “Muscle.” There was a soul-stirring power in show-opener “Anxiety,” in which Isbell described a crowded room as “a burning battlefield.”
In stark contrast to 95 percent of what passes for country music on mainstream radio, Isbell's empathetic ear and progressive-minded approach to songwriting challenges assumptions and tweaks establishments without ever sounding preachy or partisan. In “White Man’s World,” he works through the implications of “living on a white man’s street” with “the bones of the red man under my feet.” “The highway runs through their burial grounds, past the oceans of cotton,” he sings, ultimately finding hope and faith within “the fire in my little girl’s eyes.”
Isbell was flanked on his left by the mother of that little girl — fiddle player and songwriter Amanda Shires, who also charmed the crowd with a chatty opening set. Her vocal harmonies and fiddle solos with the 400 Unit were consistent highlights, and during Southeastern standout “Cover Me Up” (one of the greatest songs in Isbell's catalog), Isbell seemed to sing the lines directly to Shires.
“I sobered up, and I swore off that stuff forever this time,” he sang as the crowd whooped and hollered, celebrating his sobriety along with him. As the song drew to a close, the Ohio Theatre audience rose out of its cushioned seats for a deserved mid-set standing ovation.
Nashville, take note: This is the sound to embrace.