Jason Isbell initially reached a broader audience as a third guitarist and sometimes songwriter in the Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers, adding a fresh perspective and voice to their albums Decoration Day and The Dirty South. Those rock credentials were on full display for the second night of Isbell’s 2018 Ryman Auditorium residency, with a set list that looked all the way back to the beginning of his remarkable career.
“There’s nowhere on Earth I’d rather be this evening,” said Isbell at the top of the show, looking every bit the rock star in a pair of shiny leather pants that complemented those of his wife and bandmate Amanda Shires. The performance, which featured a trippy opening set from Nashville band Jeff the Brotherhood, began on a muscular note with the blue-collar lament “Something More Than Free” before segueing into the epic, time-shifting rocker “Anxiety,” which Isbell co-write for The Nashville Sound with Shires. Immediately after those, “Hope the High Road” was a hymn for the times, a guitar-driven anthem of resilience in the face of daily horrors.
The set on Tuesday focused primarily on songs from Isbell’s three most recent studio albums — Southeastern, Something More Than Free and The Nashville Sound — avoiding his early solo releases entirely. But the 400 Unit skillfully conjured different modes of rock, slotting the itchy, agitated punk sounds of “Cumberland Gap” right next to the stately heartland rock of “Stockholm” at one point. During the glorious shitty-night narrative “Super 8,” Isbell cracked a smile as he and Sadler Vaden waged a guitar attack that evoked the freewheeling swamp boogie of Lynyrd Skynyrd. The frontman’s well-placed Pete Townshend leap at the song’s end only reinforced the rock-star image he cultivated over the course of the two-hour show.
While Isbell didn’t shy away from his infamously sad and heavy songs, those moments felt like they were coming from a rock band rather than a group of folk-trained musicians. The haunting minor-key melody of “If We Were Vampires” was accented by some eerie synth and guitar textures, while the love song “Cover Me Up” built from Isbell’s acoustic guitar to a pulverizing, powerful climax of Chad Gamble’s thundering drums and Vaden’s sizzling slide work.
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Isbell nodded to his time in the Drive-By Truckers with a pair of songs from that era, placing “Outfit” right on the heels of his privilege exploration “White Man’s World” because, as he self-deprecatingly noted, “I like to see people run back from the bathroom really quickly.” The main set concluded with “Never Gonna Change,” a Truckers song off The Dirty South that mined Neil Young’s driving rock & roll for an extended display of guitar fireworks between Isbell and Vaden, who traded flashy licks during a mid-song jam.
The encore, which included a second live performance of Isbell’s A Star Is Born song “Maybe It’s Time,” linked him with another rock icon. Doubling down on the guitar heroics of the past 90 minutes, Isbell and company closed their set with a furious rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” alternating bottom-heavy crunch and enough fluid guitar solos to satisfy anyone who’s ever wondered what became of rock & roll.
“Something More Than Free”
“Hope the High Road”
“Speed Trap Town”
“White Man’s World”
“If We Were Vampires”
“Songs That She Sang in the Shower”
“Cover Me Up”
“If It Takes a Lifetime”
“Never Gonna Change”
“Maybe It’s Time” (from A Star Is Born)
“Little Wing” (Jimi Hendrix cover)