Jason Isbell may the quintessential Americana artist — introspective, deliberate, never a wasted lyric or note — but on Saturday night at the penultimate show of his six-show Ryman Auditorium residency, he embraced his inner go-for-broke guitar-shredder, both as headliner and as surprise guest of his hand-picked opening act, Diarrhea Planet.
The longtime Nashville power-punkers called it quits in September, playing a string of farewell shows at the club Exit/In, but at Isbell’s request, they agreed to perform one more gig at the Ryman. It was the right move, as a wild-eyed DP blazed through a 14-song set that highlighted their outrageous four-guitar attack. Isbell took note, remarking that both his “15-year-old self and 39-year-old self” were blown away by Jordan Smith and co.’s fretwork. Mid-set, he and the 400 Unit’s guitar hero Sadler Vaden joined Diarrhea Planet for “Ain’t a Sin to Win,” after Smith jokingly lamented the lack of guitar players onstage.
The highlight however — and instantly indelible moment of Music City lore — was Diarrhea Planet’s final number, a rapturous rendition of the band’s “Emmett’s Vision,” led by guitarist Emmett Miller (who, earlier in the evening, pulled off a knee slide that culminated with a teeth-picked solo). Halfway through the time-changing rocker, Smith called for even more lead guitar players — with Isbell, Vaden and a blink-and-you’d-miss-him Sturgill Simpson appearing to drive the song to its rock-star conclusion: DP member Evan Bird dramatically smashing his Fender on the Ryman’s hallowed stage.
It was a cinematic, near-perfect end to a cult band’s legacy, but it also underscored Isbell’s commitment to local artists. The 2018 Ryman residency echoed the title of Isbell’s latest studio album, The Nashville Sound, by featuring all Nashville-area acts: guitarist Melanie Faye, whom Isbell discovered through her viral Instagram videos, will open Sunday’s final show.
Seemingly invigorated by joining Diarrhea Planet, Isbell kicked off his own set with a quartet of heavy-hitters: “Last of My Kind,” “Molotov,” “24 Frames” and “Hope the High Road.” “I used to want to be a real man / I don’t know what that even means,” he snarled in “High Road,” before launching into one of many furious slide solos that punctuated the night. “Decoration Day,” one of Isbell’s strongest entries from his Drive-By Truckers days, exemplified his six-string prowess, as he answered wife Amanda Shires’ fiddle playing with his own mockingbird licks.
But it’s the interplay between Isbell and Vaden, the more slick-rock, T. Rex-inspired guitarist of the two, that was most interesting to observe. That was particularly true on “Cumberland Gap,” which Isbell shored up with its chugging Southern-rock rhythm while Vaden offered well-placed chiming notes from his Rickenbacker 12-string, before getting in the final word with a pair of delirious pick slides.
Of course, these are Isbell’s shows, and he’s often at his most striking when performing solo or with Shires. During the requisite “Cover Me Up,” a pair of women in the crowd embraced and wept openly, a physical manifestation of the Southeastern track’s unfailing poignancy. For the encore, Isbell and Shires shared their own connection, offering a cover of Warren Zevon’s “Mutineer” while singing into each other’s eyes, as they did often throughout the evening.
Still, Isbell couldn’t resist wrapping the most all-around guitar-forward night of the residency with a power chord. Once again backed by the trusty 400 Unit, he chose his knockout punch — Neil Young’s sprawling “Like a Hurricane” — and barreled to the finish with a smile.
“Last of My Kind”
“Hope the High Road”
“Speed Trap Town”
“New South Wales”
“White Man’s World”
“Flying Over Water”
“If We Were Vampires”
“Cover Me Up”
“Children of Children”
“Maybe It’s Time”
“Like a Hurricane”