in performance: jason isbell

Jason .Isbell. Photo by Erika Goldring.

“We promise we don’t have any Christmas songs for you tonight,” remarked Jason Isbell prior to the kickoff of a sold out, two hour-plus acoustic performance Saturday at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond. “We don’t have anything against Christmas songs. We’re just tired of them.”

With that, Isbell, guitarist Sadler Vaden and violinist (and wife) Amanda Shires dug into “24 Frames,” a panoramic country snapshot that underscored a poetic yet unsettled rural narrative. It exemplified the often restless nature of Isbell’s best songs, an attribute that has helped them take on massive electric personas when played by his full 400 Unit band (of which Vaden and Shires are members). Without a rhythm section or rockish amplification, the song’s appeal and potency were in no way compromised. The melodic flow of the tune may have been lighter, but its lyrical urgency was still luminous.

That’s how the rest of the 20-song set played out, as well. Some of the more Americana-inclined tunes from Isbell’s catalog, especially the whopping seven songs pulled from his 2013 breakthrough album “Southeastern,” seemed a natural fit for the acoustic trio. Especially arresting was the lonesome highway imagery conjured during “Traveling Alone,” where Shires’ violin colors offered a ghostly ambience.

But Isbell didn’t shy away from giving his more aggressive works a trim, as well. Topping that list was “Outfit,” a fan favorite from the songsmith’s past artistic life as a member of Drive-By Truckers. A story of tough fatherly love, the song is usually an electric monster in the hands of the 400 Unit. On Saturday, it fell again to Shires to do some of compensatory heavy lifting by replacing the searing power chords that drove the band version with thinner but suitably tense runs on the violin.

Ultimately, though, it was the plain speaking nature of the songs, along with Isbell’s steadfast delivery of them, that fueled the performance. A case in point: “Tupelo,” a work from 2017’s “The Nashville Sound” album that neatly summarized its sense of uneasy escape within a lean chorus lyric (“There ain’t no one from here that will follow me there”).

Unlike his shows with the 400 Unit, Isbell was loose and chatty between songs on Saturday, spinning yarns of devotion and denouncement. His topics included Bruce Springsteen, harmonica solos, composing songs while stranded at a muddy German festival and the as-yet unrealized concept of queso streaming.

Everything became quite orderly, however, when Isbell performed “Cover Me Up,” a song audience members began shouting for from the onset of the concert. The composition was essentially written for Shires, who usually performs her own music with her own band. Having Mrs. Isbell onstage singing harmony during a composition that wasn’t so much a love song as a tale of redemption was undeniably electric. This may have been an acoustic performance by design and intent, but at this moment, sparks flew generously.

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