Since releasing his universally acclaimed 2013 album Southeastern, Jason Isbell can do no wrong, gaining more fans and recognition with each new album. These days Isbell and his band the 400 Unit are on tour supporting his sixth full-length studio album The Nashville Sound, and on Monday, September 11th their tour made its way to Portland, Oregon for a show at the Keller Auditorium.
While many in the audience hadn’t heard of Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls, it was clear by the overwhelming enthusiasm that a good chunk of the crowd were big fans. Turner and his band offered an energetic contrast to Isbell, taking on the role of a wild busker as opposed to Isbell’s serious troubadour. The name of the game was audience participation as Turner led clapping, chants, sing-a-longs, and even welcomed an audience member to the stage for a harmonica lesson and solo. Songs like “I Am Disappeared”, “Get Better”, and “The Opening Act of Spring” mixed Springsteen-esque workingman’s rock with a punk Americana that felt like what would happen if the Avett Brothers fused with Bad Religion. It was hard to not get swept up in the euphoria and catchy, hook-loaded songs, and when Turner announced it was the band’s 2,099th show there was plenty of praise from the crowd. At times Turner’s music felt a bit cheesy, but by the time the band neared the end of their set with the hard-charging rock anthem “I Still Believe” it was hard to deny the joyous spirit and infectiousness of the music.
The first thing that stood out when Jason Isbell took the stage was that his wife and bandmate Amanda Shires was missing. Though it would have been nice to have Shires’ gorgeous vocal harmonies and fiddle playing in the mix, it was clear as soon as the band kicked off their set that they were firing on all cylinders. Songs like “24 Frames”, “Something More Than Free”, and “Molotov” were triumphant with powerful guitar solos from Isbell and Sadler Vaden. One of the most warm-hearted moments of the night came from keyboardist Derry deBorja’s jubilant accordion during the Robert Earl Keen-meets-“Wagon Wheel” 2011 song “Codeine”. “White Man’s World” switched gears to a more political note and exploded with fiery organ and slide guitar interplay. “Go It Alone” would feature one of the biggest rock and roll moments with massive drums, organ, and a slide guitar solo from Isbell.
Later in the set Isbell would strip things down for acoustic performances of “Stockholm” and “Cover Me Up”, gradually adding in band members and letting the song reach a moving emotional peak before closing out the set with “Anxiety”. Of course, the band was beckoned back to the stage after major applause from the audience and closed out the night on a Southern rock high with “Super 8 Motel” and “If We Were Vampires”.
If there was one thing lacking from the performance, it was the lack of Isbell’s work with the Drive-By Truckers – especially on the 16th anniversary of Southern Rock Opera, the album that put them all on the map – and his pre-Southeastern solo material. While there is no doubt Isbell’s success and many of his fans have come to him since his Dave Cobb-produced albums, his early solo work is not to be overlooked. Then again, there’s also no doubt that Isbell is on top of the world right now when it comes to being a true American songwriter and having an incredibly tight band, all of which was made beautifully clear in Portland on Monday.
All photos by Greg Homolka.