As Jason Isbell eases into another run of sold-out shows at the Ryman Auditorium, it’s tempting to take the songwriting hero — whose Ryman residencies stretch back to 2014 — for granted.
He’s driven. He’s dependable. And ever since Southeastern relaunched his solo career five years ago, he’s rarely stumbled, releasing three award-winning albums that find him embracing fatherhood, singing the praises of wife (and muse) Amanda Shires and attempting to negotiate some sort of peace with today’s politically pointed world. Rarely has Americana music sounded so consistent and compelling.
Consistency has played a big role in Isbell’s renaissance, but that doesn’t mean he’s interested in repeating himself. On Monday, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit performed like a renewed band, kicking off this year’s six-show Ryman takeover with a set that sounded studied, but no less soulful. The group’s arrangements have become more deliberate, with each dynamic shift emphasized by a light show that doubled down on the music’s unique punch. “If We Were Vampires” found the bandmates bathed in red, while a wash of indigo lights drove home the protest blues of “White Man’s World.” Playing beneath their now-signature anchor-and-dove logo, Isbell and company sounded triumphant, as though they’ve spent their time on the bus brushing up on E Street Band documentaries and Arcade Fire bootlegs.
On his past three studio records, Isbell worked with Dave Cobb, a producer whose in-the-moment approach prioritizes first takes and instinctual performances over carefully-constructed arrangements. That method allows the songs to deepen and evolve in concert, and yesterday found the 400 Unit examining their crowd favorites from new angles. “Cumberland Gap” barreled ahead at highway speed, sounding more like an amplified rock anthem than a roots-music number, while the Drive-By Truckers staple “Goddamn Lonely Love” moved at a slower sway, its sad beauty sinking in deeper with each measure. “Something to Love,” with its Rickenbacker guitar arpeggios and a guest appearance from the evening’s opening act, Molly Tuttle, could’ve doubled as a coed Traveling Wilburys classic, while the Here We Rest gem “Codeine” was transformed into a bluegrass sing-along. A first-ever performance of “Maybe It’s Time,” Isbell’s contribution to the Bradley Cooper film A Star Is Born, slotted itself neatly into the encore. And as a band-heavy version of “Last of My Kind” wound to a close, Amanda Shires and Sadler Vaden swapped licks on the fiddle and guitar, with both musicians referencing the other’s riffs in their own solos.
Much has been made of Isbell’s decision to credit his most recent work, The Nashville Sound, to the 400 Unit. The album marked his first project with a band in years, even though it featured the same roster of players who appeared on its predecessor, Something More Than Free. Last night, though, the 400 Unit truly played like a unit, with the lines that separate Isbell and his five bandmates being all but erased. Shires, Vaden and keyboardist Derry deBorja even worked together to highlight each song’s moving parts, often performing the same melodic lines — from the guitar hook in “Tupelo” to the descending fiddle riff from the “Last of My Kind” outro — on all three instruments. The result was a show that struck a deeper chord than Isbell’s previous performances in the same room, highlighting not only a songwriter in the thick of his artistic heyday, but a band that’s every bit as gripping as its leader.
“Hope the High Road”
“Goddamn Lonely Love”
“The Life You Choose”
“Last of My Kind”
“White Man’s World”
“If We Were Vampires”
“Flying Over Water”
“Cover Me Up”
“Maybe It’s Time”
“Something to Love”