You can take Jason Isbell out of Muscle Shoals, but you can’t take Muscle Shoals out of Isbell. That was clear Saturday night at the Shoals Community Theatre in Florence, Alabama, where, backed by his longtime outfit the 400 Unit (which the local press recently deemed the E Street Band of their era), the North Alabama native made his first proper full-band appearance since 2010.
“It’s great to be here,” Isbell told a full house teeming with old friends and family, before launching into “Hope the High Road,” a driving heartland rocker from his latest LP The Nashville Sound. The record may be named for Music City, the singer’s adopted hometown of five years, but when he belted the track’s opening line – “I used to think that this was my town / what a stupid thing to think” – he did so with a palpable, immediate conviction that felt like a humble declaration directed at the old stomping ground that’s still more than happy to claim him. “I grew up in Green Hill, about 20 minutes from here,” Isbell told the capacity crowd of 686, all of whom already seemed to know that.
A lot has happened to Isbell since 2010, both in terms of the singer’s career – a series of self-released, acclaimed albums simultaneously topping rock, folk and country charts, Grammys, magazine covers, multi-night stands at hallowed venues like Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium – and in terms of his personal life, where marriage, fatherhood and sobriety have matured him. Much of that story is documented in the songs from a streak of game-changing LPs that began with 2013’s Dave Cobb-produced Americana masterpiece Southeastern. Selections from those records dominated the rousing 18-song, nearly two-hour set, the main event at Alabama-based fashion designer Billy Reid’s annual Shindig in the Shoals.
The musical highlights were many. Backlit by flood lights, on rockers like “Super 8” and the mean-mugging “Cumberland Gap,” Isbell, sporting a Radiohead shirt, and band kicked out power chords and guitar duels at tempos and volumes fast and loud enough to silence anyone who thinks of the artist as a pensive singer-songwriter. But when he did indulge in those pensive, singer-songwriter-y moments, like “Last of My Kind” and “If We Were Vampires,” Isbell captivated and compelled with a focus and stoic charisma that coffeehouse singers the world over aspire to but rarely ever achieve.
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Then there were the fun moments, like Isbell hopping up and down in excitement after parading his bandmates to the lip of the stage like a rock & roll switchblade gang during the climax of fan-favorite “Codeine,” from 2011’s Here We Rest, the first song of the night to get the crowd on its feet.
“You guys startled me when you all stood up at the same time,” Isbell joked. “Usually when that happens I get real worried, because I think maybe that’s when the P.A. [turned on]. … Did y’all hear the first five songs that we played?”
As his something more than 160,000 Twitter followers know, Isbell can be quite a cut-up, and it didn’t take long before this hometown gig started feeling as much like a standup set of parochial Alabama in-jokes as it did a rock show. One humorous anecdote came when Isbell introduced his wife, singer-songwriter Amanda Shires, who displayed her fine fiddle chops throughout the show, and played Patti to Isbell’s Bruce as a duet partner. He recalled why she never moved in with him in Alabama.
“The bats ran her off!” he said of his days living in nearby Sheffield. “In the middle of the night there were bats, and they came through an open window in the apartment. And we got them out with a Swiffer, I remember that, we got them off the ceiling, we got them in a bucket, we dumped them out the window.”
“And I drove back to my family’s house,” Shires interjected.
The bats weren’t the only problem.
“For some reason, everybody in Sheffield has their shirt off,” the singer went on, to knowing applause. “We’re glad that you [Shires] came back to play fiddle with us this evening.”
On the poignant end of the spectrum, “White Man’s World” – Isbell’s audit of his own white privilege – was, like the bulk of Isbell’s oeuvre, a heart-attack-serious rumination on guilt, shame, heartache and the human condition. And despite his pleasant drawl, dry delivery and natural comedic timing, the applause line of the night didn’t come after a bon mot – like when he noted how hearing an accordion makes him crave romance and pasta (“It’s the only instrument that does that!”) As it always does, it came when he sang, “I sobered up and I swore off that stuff / Forever this time,” during another reliably show-stopping version of Southeastern’s centerpiece “Cover Me Up.”
Now in its ninth year, Shindig is an informal annual weekend-long cultural confab of homegrown fashion, art, farm-to-table fare and, naturally, music from the corner of the Cotton State that gave the world more indispensable, greasy R&B, rock & roll, pop and country than a human being could listen to in one lifetime. Most of it originated from two legendary studios – Muscle Shoals Sound and the still-operational-and-in-demand FAME.
In addition to Isbell, this year included performances from the always-welcome brass-masters Preservation Hall Jazz Band; torch-carrying Delta Blues heir Cedric Burnside, who opened for Isbell; the Del McCoury Band, playing a free show in a park; My Morning Jacket guitarist Carl Broemel; and Nashville garage-rocker Ron Gallo, whose power trio left the stage of the club Reid co-owns, 116 E. Mobile Street, in tatters by the end of his midnight after-party set.
And for the second year in a row, rocker and noted baseball buff Jack White and his staff at Third Man Records made the two-hour trek from Nashville to compete in a hardball double-header against a team of staffers from Billy Reid. Third Man won both games. White played first base.