There is nothing unusual in a national performer namedropping a regionally friendly reference to gain favor from the audience he happens to be playing to on a given evening. Jason Isbell didn’t really need that kind of ceremony last night at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond. The very human narrative of his songs, their broad stylistic appeal and the effortlessly forthright manner in which they were placed on display more than heartened the sold out crowd. But Isbell, an Alabama native now residing in Nashville, still had a neighborly whopper of a yarn to share. While no amount of detail here would do it justice, the story dealt with meeting Kentucky native Wynonna Judd in a state of sobering flamboyance and then recounting the tale to an unsuspecting (and disbelieving) Supercuts barber in Richmond yesterday afternoon.
The saga was a detailed and curious interlude during a performance that roared very efficiently for 1 ¾ hours, from the opening electric rumble of “Go It Alone” to the full tilt encore finale of “Super 8.” The framework was very much rock ‘n’ roll, but with considerable dynamics and dimension, like the Cajun accents that offset the wayward characterizations of “Codeine,” the breezy but bittersweet lyrical momentum of “Alabama Pines” and the comparatively blunt jams that circulated through “Never Gonna Change,” one of three tunes pulled from Isbell’s more reckless days with Drive-By Truckers.
But the sentiments and, quite often, sensibility of Isbell’s tunes – especially recent ones from his “Southwestern” and “Something More Than Free” albums, which accounted for over half of the setlist last night – fell closer to country. Specifically, they hinted not so much at an embrace of rural heritage, but the fear of losing it. You heard it echo within the descending power chords of “Outfit” (another Truckers favorite) and in the more summery makeup of “If It Takes a Lifetime.” “I got too far from my raising,” he sang in the latter amid one of the evening’s gentler country melodies before a more personal sense of salvation took over.
In terms of performance, the entire blend was delivered with considerable clarity. Some vocal passages were blurred, especially at the start and conclusion of the performance. That was a modest annoyance, perhaps, as live rock shows go, but noticeable nonetheless because of the very complete sense of storytelling that runs through Isbell’s songs. But there were also times when you couldn’t help but follow the concert in purely musical terms, as when Isbell’s jolting slide guitar solo ignited “Decoration Day” or a stark acoustic intro set up the hurricane strength intensity of the vocal lead that fortified “Cover Me Up.”
Most telling of all was “Hope the High Road,” a cross between a Jackson Browne confessional and a vintage blast of John Mellencamp-style, Americana imbued rock. The song was one of two preview works off of Isbell’s new “The Nashville Sound” album, due out in June. The joke, of course, was that for all of the program’s inherent country inspiration, what resulted was far too earnest in design and intent to be mistaken for anything that has been spewing out of Nashville of late. Maybe what we heard last night in Richmond was a serious step in redefining that sound. Here’s hoping.
Guitarist William Tyler opened the evening with an inviting 45 minute set of trio-based instrumental music. While a few turns on acoustic guitar (including “Kingdom of Jones”) reflected a sense of Americana primitive that wasn’t far removed from the playing of such folk journeymen as John Fahey, a selection of electric compositions emphasized rhythm in arpeggio-like phrasings that bordered on minimalism. Then again, the set closing “The Great Unwind” began with Celtic-flavored solemnity before warping against a slight-of-hand groove that was more in line with the music of modernists like Bill Frisell. It nicely completed an intriguing, inviting preface to Isbell’s more expansive Americana joyride.