When Jason Isbell asks if he’s the “last of my kind” in his wistful song of the same name, it’s hard not to wonder if the answer is “yes.” It was particularly resonant when he played The Nashville Sound track mid-set on Wednesday night, during the third show of his six-night 2018 residency at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium — a performance that illuminated Isbell as, if not the last of a breed, then certainly as the most rare and complex of artists.
Despite just releasing the Live From the Ryman album that leans heavily on his last three LPs, he opened the show with “Go It Alone,” a cut off 2011’s Here We Rest.
A tech-savvy master of Twitter, he asked that phones be put away for his concert. Already into a tender performance of “Cover Me Up,” Isbell admonished a fan for recording: “The problem that I have is that your phone doesn’t have the ability to take audio or video that’s worth a shit.”
And while he certainly could consolidate his annual residency into a single show or two at the nearby Bridgestone Arena, he steadfastly refuses. “I’ve been to shows at the arena and I couldn’t hear everything I wanted to and I couldn’t see everybody like I wanted to,” he told Rolling Stone earlier this year.
It all helps to explain the connection that his fans feel for Isbell, a bond so deeply forged that the 39-year-old singer-songwriter is able to take over one of music’s most beloved venues for nearly a week each year.
Throughout the evening — which kicked off with a blistering performance from Nashville rock band Bully — Isbell had the mid-week crowd on its feet, beginning with the swampy power chords and white-hot slide of “Go It Alone.” He continued building energy with The Nashville Sound track “Molotov,” before launching into an extended version of The Dirty South-era Drive-By Truckers anthem “Never Gonna Change.” That song found Isbell and 400 Unit guitar hero Sadler Vaden engaging in a call-and-response style guitar duel that showed both players not only to be masters of their instruments but to also possess the ease, comfort and musical generosity that only comes with playing together for so long.
Big, loud rock numbers abounded throughout Night 3, with a particular highlight the relentless Southern punk of “Cumberland Gap,” a Nashville Sound favorite that only gets better with repeated performance. Isbell shone on softer numbers, too, bringing the crowd to a hush with acoustic renditions of “Flagship” and “If We Were Vampires” alongside fiddle player and wife Amanda Shires.
An emotional high point came via Isbell’s performance of his 2007 Sirens of the Ditch standout “Dress Blues,” which he explained he wrote in honor of Marine Cpl. Matthew D. Conley, who attended Isbell’s high school in Alabama and was killed by an IED in Iraq in 2006. His voice, as it did throughout the entire set, sounded especially soulful, accented by his playing a smoldering, bluesy guitar solo on his rarely used Stratocaster.
Isbell ended the night on an optimistic note, offering a buoyant take on The Nashville Sound‘s socially-conscious “Hope the High Road.” He amplified that message of inclusivity in the encore too, opting for a well-chosen cover as the show’s capper: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Wrote a Song for Everyone.”
“Go It Alone”
“Never Gonna Change”
“White Man’s World”
“How to Forget”
“Last of My Kind”
“If We Were Vampires”
“Tour of Duty”
“Flying Over Water”
“Cover Me Up”
“Hope the High Road”
“Maybe It’s Time” (from A Star Is Born)
“Wrote a Song for Everyone”