Anyone who has followed the career of Jason Isbell – both as a member of the Drive-By Truckers and solo with the 400 Unit – would’ve been pleased to be at Austin’s ACL Live on Thursday night. With the success of his previous two albums Southeastern and Something More Than Free, Isbell has redefined himself as one of the most poignant songwriters today while giving us all hope that Nashville is still not entirely ruled by watered down pop-country. Between that and his sold-out two-night run to kick off a massive tour, it’s safe to say that Jason Isbell is on top of the world right now.
Given his high esteem in Nashville and the world of country and Americana music as a whole, it made sense that Isbell’s stage lighting consisted of three large stained glass panels, bringing to mind the famed Ryman Auditorium (which he sold out four nights in a row last October) or the churches that dot the landscape throughout his home state of Alabama. Isbell and his band launched off the set with a triumphant “Palmetto Rose” that set a high bar for the rest of the night. Older song “Go It Alone” soared with Derry DeBorja’s organ and a searing slide guitar solo from Sadler Vaden, while Isbell’s Drive-By Truckers material “Decoration Day”, “Outfit” and “Never Gonna Change” found his band grinding out blistering Southern rock. The latter was easily a highlight of the show with Isbell showing off his own skills as a blues guitarist and engaging in a shred dual with Vaden that veered gloriously into psych rock territory. “24 Frames” also brought massive cheers with its unmistakable and infectiously catchy slide riff, making for one of the more explosive moments of the night.
Balancing out the rock and roll were Isbell’s more personal songs, all of which were just as engaging but for different reasons. The gorgeously strummed “Traveling Alone” shimmered with harmonies and felt even more tender with the presence of Isbell’s wife and fiddle player Amanda Shires; and the charming “Those Were Different Days” was steeped in nostalgia, showing Isbell’s ability as a songwriter to get mushy without losing his edge. “Cover Me Up” is more stripped down and intimate on Southeastern but the band reworked the tune with massive drums, ripping slide guitar, and airy synthesizer, allowing this deeply personal song to still hit all of the emotional triggers in such a large venue.
“Speed Trap Town” was a clear favorite with Isbell’s knack for storytelling taking the spotlight. Seeing this songwriter’s newer material performed live showcased just how strong of a performer he is in his ability to wrestle with demons and often tame them within the span of a single song. Jason Isbell has been sober four years and is now nominated for a Grammy, so his rise to success is, in a way, a tale of redemption. One of the most moving moments came during the encore when Isbell and Shires took the stage together with only the backing of DeBorja’s serenading accordion for a chill-inducing duet of “Flagship”, a song about falling in love that took on more emotion seeing this husband and wife singing together. By the end of the joyous fan favorite “Codeine” Jason Isbell and his band were on fire, showing this crowd of devotees – many of whom were clearly newer fans – just how far they’ve come.
Speaking of husband and wife, Shovels & Rope also played an impressive opening set. With their bare bones setup of guitar and drums, Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst managed to hold the attention of a chatty crowd with their hillbilly White Stripes, countrified rock and roll swagger. Neither is an especially great singer, but their voices fit together like harmonious puzzle pieces and it’s hard not to get excited watching the sparks fly between these lovers as they belt out tunes.
Go It Alone
Decoration Day (DBT)
The Life You Chose
Never Gonna Change (DBT)
Something More Than Free
Cover Me Up
If It Takes A Lifetime
Speed Trap Town
Super 8 Motel
Children of Children