The Washington Nationals walloped the Houston Astros during Game Two of the World Series last night, but for the 2,362 fans who packed the pews at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, there was only one October tradition worth watching: the fifth show of Jason Isbell’s yearly residency at the Mother Church.
Isbell’s annual Ryman gigs have become as familiar a part of Nashville’s modern-day makeover as construction cranes — which is appropriate, given that the songwriter is clearly building something here. In a city whose rapid growth spurt has resulted in soaring housing costs and ever-worsening traffic congestion, Isbell’s Ryman run — which will find the frontman taking the stage for seven sold-out shows this year, flanked (as always) by the 400 Unit — feels like one of those rare, latter-day Nashville traditions that actually nod to the spirit of the town and the ghosts of its past.
From the downbeat to the encore, guitar strummers ruled the roost last night. Jimmy “Duck” Holmes kicked off the evening with an opening set of loose, greasy, horn-dog blues, delivered from a single chair planted center stage. Dan Auerbach and Marcus King both contributed to Holmes’ newest record, Cypress Grove, but the Bentonia, Mississippi, bluesman’s Ryman performance was hauntingly bare, accompanied by nothing more than an open-tuned acoustic guitar and a mood-setting smoke machine. Virtually every song was about sex, wayward women. . .and sex with wayward women, which would’ve been harder to swallow if Holmes wasn’t so likable, like the friend you’d take home to meet your parents but would never introduce to your sister. “Roll me just like your grandma roll her biscuit dough,” he sang at one point, mixing humor and hormones in equal doses.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit took the stage sometime after 9 o’clock, looking like Americana superheroes with their Mike Campbell scarves (guitarist Sadler Vaden) and floor-length, Watchmen-worthy trench coats (fiddler Amanda Shires). This isn’t a band of showboaters — Vaden’s Townshend-sized windmills remain the only rockstar gestures of the show — but it was nice see the 400 Unit leaning into their status as larger-than-life bandmates, a move that echoed iconic backing groups like the E Street Band. That would make Isbell the Boss, and he ran his office last night with workmanlike professionalism, palpable respect for his co-workers, and a setlist that reached all the way to the early days, from the expected Drive-By Truckers cuts (“Goddamn Lonely Love,” “Decoration Day”) to deep-dive solo material (2009’s “Streetlights,” 2011’s “We’ve Met”). Also included in the mix was “Overseas,” a new, unreleased song whose atmospheric swirl channeled “Face in the Crowd”-era Tom Petty.
The result was an 18-song show that felt more like a career retrospective than something tailored to a recent album release, with deeper readings of now-familiar songs. “White Man’s World” stomped with more pissed-off menace than The Nashville Sound‘s original recording, while Here We Rest‘s “Tour of Duty” wore its bluegrass stripes proudly, with nary an electric guitar in sight. Even the expected moves packed a punch. The band’s epic treatment of “Cover Me Up” — with marching-band percussion punctuating the final chorus like an over-amplified heartbeat — remains a highlight of the show, with Isbell reaching into the rafters of his register to bellow the chorus. And there’s absolutely nothing in Americana music like the roar of approval that erupts from the audience once Isbell delivers the song’s declaration of sobriety, promising Amanda Shires that he “swore off that stuff, forever this time.”
Great songs never get old. They just get familiar. And last night, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit reminded Nashville — a city whose very landscape seems to change every year — that familiar ground is a solid place to stand.
“Hope the High Road”
“White Man’s World”
“Last of My Kind”
“Tour of Duty”
“Goddamn Lonely Love”
“Flying Over Water”
“If It Takes a Lifetime”
“Cover Me Up”
“Brothers in Arms” (Dire Straits cover)