By John T. Davis/Special to the American-Statesman
Sometimes the good things are worth waiting for.
Jason Isbell has spent the past few years collecting new fans, critics’ plaudits, Grammy awards and media attention with a near-mechanical regularity. The process seems to be peaking with the very recent release of his latest album, “The Nashville Sound.” It takes some serious momentum and buzz to pack ACL Live for three nights running.
But there he was, onstage with his crackerjack band, the 400 Unit, in front of a crowd buzzing with anticipation. And there I was, laying eyes on him in person for the first time.
Well, better late than never. Oh, I’d seen Isbell in his former incarnation as a member of the Drive-By Truckers. But this new guy — the bandleader, the astringent, insightful songwriter, the forceful vocalist — was still, to me, a largely unknown quantity.
But not for long. That Isbell made one more convert during the course of a tight, 18-song set Friday night probably meant less than nothing to him. But to this audience member, watching a musician emerge onto a new and higher plateau of craft, assurance and showmanship was a rare treat to experience.
The musical template from which Isbell draws is full of sunny Americana-tinged hues that include folk, rock, country and blues. But many of his lyrics mine the same blasted landscape of fraught dead ends that has been mapped by James McMurtry, Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen. Isbell’s music is the soundtrack of a man trying to prove to himself he’s still alive.
“I used to think this was my town/What a stupid thing to think,” he sang on his opening number, “Hope the High Road.” “I hear you’re fighting off a breakdown/I myself am on the brink.” And he followed that with the Tom Petty-esque rocker “24 Frames,” which warned ominously, “You thought God was an architect/Now you know/He’s something like a pipe bomb/Ready to blow.”
Hard-hitting sentiments, to be sure, but Isbell isn’t a doom and gloom merchant. Rather, he was selling stoicism and transcendence: marching forward no matter what, clutching the hand you’re dealt.
He was aided in his efforts by the 400 Unit, an airtight quintet that features his wife, fiddler and vocalist Amanda Shires (she’s opening the shows Saturday and Sunday). Whether in semi-acoustic mode, as in “The Last of My Kind,” “If We Were Vampires” or “Something To Love,” or rocking like a Saturday night bar band on “Cumberland Gap” and an encore cover of the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post,” the band made the kind of multi-layered, full-throated sound that filled up every corner of the room. It was an exhilarating experience.
There were a couple of false moments. To these ears, “Something To Love” and “If It Takes a Lifetime” didn’t work in the context of the rest of Isbell’s taut and wary lyrics. There wasn’t a lived-in feel to the songs, and they seemed self-conscious. But that’s a subjective judgment, and a small caveat to what was a revelatory evening.
To judge by last night’s show Isbell certainly seems to be at the top of his game. That doesn’t mean he’s peaked, by any means. But you know he’s got to be enjoying the view.