It’s been nearly a year and a half since Jason Isbell released Southeastern, but the former Drive-By Trucker is still pounding the pavement in support of its release. Last weekend, Isbell punctuated one of the best years of his career — a year that found him touring the globe, sweeping the 13th Annual Americana Music Awards and playing more than 120 shows — with a three-night residency at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee.
An Alabaman by birth and Tennessean by mailing address, Isbell threw a bone to both of his hometown crowds by recruiting a mix of Nashville acts and Birmingham bands — St. Paul and the Broken Bones, fellow AMA winner Sturgill Simpson and Isbell’s wife of nearly two years, Amanda Shires — to open up the sold-out Ryman gigs. He also varied his band’s setlists from night to night, playing Southeastern in its entirety during the kickoff show on Friday, October 24th, and tossing the 2,362-capacity audience a few curveballs during the remaining two shows. Perhaps the most unexpected tune was a fiery, fretwork-heavy version of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” performed on October 25th in tribute to Cream’s bass player, the late Jack Bruce, who succumbed to a long battle with liver disease earlier that day.
Backed by an updated version of the 400 Unit — which, since last summer, has included Shires and former Drivin’ N Cryin’ guitarist Sadler Vaden, in addition to longtime 400ers Jimbo Hart, Derry DeBorja and Chad Gamble — Isbell slashed and swaggered his way through Cream’s 1967 hit, with Vaden throwing in an expert windmill (a familiar sight during his days fronting the Charleston-based power trio Leslie, but a rare treat these days) while Isbell and Hart climbed onto the drum riser during the song’s extended outro. In a fan-shot video of the song, the audience rises to its feet as soon as Vaden and Isbell play the final power chord.
Earlier in the weekend, Isbell also covered the title track from Warren Zevon’s 1995 album, Mutineer, joined by Shires on fiddle and background vocals. Finally, Isbell and the 400 Unit closed out their three-night Ryman residency — a residency filled with stripped-down ballads, bar-band barn-burners and more standing ovations than the State of the Union address— by tackling the Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” proof that even the modern-day leaders of Americana music need to look backward once in awhile.