It’s been nearly ten years since Jason Isbell released Southeastern, the Dave Cobb-produced album that propelled him onto the radar for a new legion of fans. Isbell had always been a formidable songwriter, first as a member of the Drive-by Truckers and then with his band the 400 Unit, but Southeastern took him to another level that, combined with his sobriety-influenced focus and savvy Twitter presence, made him the major attraction he is today. This landmark album, which surely changed his life, seemed to be on his mind throughout the nearly two-hour set he delivered with his band on Friday, March 4th at Portland, Oregon’s Keller Auditorium.
Jason Isbell has a long history of inviting world-class acts to open for him, and this show was no exception with Shawn Colvin getting the evening started. Performing solo with only her acoustic guitar, Colvin sounded better than ever as she played her Americana-folk songs stretching back more than thirty years. Songs like “Cry Like An Angel,” “Sunny Came Home,” “Ricochet In Time,” and “Diamond in the Rough” all shined and reminded this audience of Colvin’s immense talent as a songwriter.
Kicking their set off with “What’ve I Done to Help,” complete with a funky little bass solo and dramatic slide guitar, the 400 Unit would immediately set the tone for a night of straightforward rock and alt-country that included songs from throughout Isbell’s career. Guitarist Sadler Vaden, truly the band’s secret weapon, would drop some serious Pete Townshend power chords on the big-hearted rocker “Hope the High Road,” with Isbell laying down bluesy licks during “Overseas.” As a seasoned performer, Isbell knows how to pace a set, and he would make sure to intersperse the bigger rock numbers with his quieter material, like the charming and acoustic Americana tune “Different Days” and a version of “Letting You Go” dedicated to his daughter that felt like an old cowboy ballad with Vaden’s slide guitar and Derry DeBorja’s accordion.
Perhaps not surprising given the looming anniversary, songs from Southeastern would get the most enthusiastic reception from the crowd. The emotionally-charged “24 Frames” showed just how polished and tight this band has become as they let the infectious chorus and slide guitar soar, while the gritty, anthemic “Super 8” was a swaggering rocker with barroom piano that pulled the crowd from their seats and had the Is-bros singing along at full blast. The band would keep the set moving full throttle with Vaden’s take on Drivin’ N’ Cryin’s “Honeysuckle Blue” complete with a blistering guitar solo from Isbell before he reached back to his Drive-by Truckers days with the ominous slide-playing, sprawling rock opus “Decoration Day.” “Only Children” would change the tone with its Crosby, Stills and Nash-like harmonies followed by “Elephant” played on acoustic by Isbell with only piano accompaniment. The most powerful moments of the show would come in the final stretch with a massively rocking version of “Flying Over Water” contrasted by the band injecting rich musical texture into the poignant and heartfelt folk tune “Cover Me Up.”
When the band left the stage following the emotional closer, there was no way they could end the night without closing on a high. Returning with “If We Were Vampires” – one of the weirder and more underwhelming songs in Isbell’s catalog – they would bring out an old friend. Portland resident and Drive-by Truckers frontman Patterson Hood took the stage with a big smile and strapped on his guitar as Isbell ripped into his Truckers-era song “Never Gonna Change,” easily one of his most potent and catchy songs ever written. Onstage in Portland, the band fired away on the alt-country tune as Isbell, Vaden, and Hood stood in a circle wailing away on their guitars. This final moment was only further proof that Isbell and his band have solidified themselves as one of the strongest large venue rock acts on the road today, with musical chops to match his strength as one of the great contemporary American songwriters.