It was the perfect setting to celebrate Jason Isbell’s recent life triumphs: First, a set from his friend and special hand-picked opening act, the charming Caitlin Rose; then, a chance to perform to a sold-out crowd of family, friends, and fans on one of the most famous stages in the world in his adopted home town. This would be a night for everyone to remember and acknowledge his personal victories and the release of perhaps the best record of 2013.
Having seen Isbell perform a few times over the years, I’d describe my interest as favorable, but casual. That is, until I saw him and his crack 400 Unit at a Grimeys in-store earlier this year. I soon wore out his new Southeastern record and rediscovered his previous three fine solo records. (The complete Isbell collection additionally requires his two live records and three Drive-By Truckers records.) This night’s two-hour plus set further fueled my passion for Isbell’s music. I now consider myself among the faithful who consider Isbell to be one of the best songwriters of this generation.
Aside from the actual performance, the sound mix was perfect throughout the night. Isbell’s vocals were crisp, clear and out front, allowing the listener to hang on to every word and capture the essence of each song. I was impressed by how Isbell, still young at age 34, continues to maintain his humble and boyish charm despite all the attention he has received of late. This was a big deal for him to be headlining the Ryman, and he graciously respected that honor. Add that to playing in front of both his parents and in-laws (parents of wife and band member Amanda Shires). I suspect that he may have moved up “Outfit” in the set just for his Dad. For tonight, this touching ode to his father’s advice was a heartfelt message of thanks.
Isbell’s set list took us through his earlier records and four popular songs from his Truckers’ days. He also played eight of the twelve tracks from Southeastern, remarking how great it was to hear people cheer for the new songs rather than go to the bathroom. The new record also provided some of the night’s brightest moments from the full-throttle “Super 8” to Isbell’s sensitive reading of “Cover Me Up.” The latter performance goes down in history as one of the most tender and powerful moments I have ever witnessed on stage. You could hear a pin drop as Isbell poured out every ounce of emotion he could muster. It was a brilliant affirmation of his finding sobriety–a poignant confession to each and every one in the house.
The set list also gave a nod to Isbell’s Alabama roots through two choice covers: Candi Stanton’s soulful 1970 single “Heart on a String;” and the sizzling, show-closing “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” a song the Stones cut in Muscle Shoals in 1969 for their classic Sticky Fingers LP. He sent us home quite happy with “Knocking” as his final number. My only disappointment was that Nashville resident Bobby Keys wasn’t on hand to reprise his great sax solo from the record.
I left the hall pondering Isbell’s career. While arena superstardom may not be in his cards, he surely will have a long sustaining career with a solid fan base. He should continue to sell-out arenas of Ryman’s size for a long and productive career. As of now, Jason Isbell is my hands-down pick for artist, record, and live show of the year.
- Flying Over Water
- Go It Alone
- Decoration Day (Drive-By Truckers)
- Outfit (Drive-By Truckers)
- Tour of Duty
- Cover Me Up
- Live Oak
- Different Days
- Travelling Alone
- Never Gonna Change (Drive-By Truckers)
- In a Razor Town
- Alabama Pines
- The Magician
- Goddamn Lonely Love (Drive-By Truckers)
- Super 8
- Dress Blues
- Heart on a String (Candi Stanton cover)
- Danko/Manuel (Drive-By Truckers)
- Can’t You Hear Me Knocking (Rolling Stones cover)
Jason Isbell – Vocals, Acoustic and Electric Guitars
Derry de Borja – Keyboards and Mellotron
Chad Gamble – Drums
Jimbo Hart – Bass
Sadler Vaden – Electric Guitar
Amanda Shires – Fiddle