Jason Isbell is no stranger to the Taft Theatre. He opened for Ryan Adams there not long after the release of Here We Rest, took to the 500-capacity basement Ballroom with his band the 400 Unit, graduated to the big theater with his breakthrough Southeastern, and on Tuesday, in his first Cincinnati appearance since last year’s outstanding Something More Than Free, Isbell rolled into town for the first of two nights at the venue. Two night layovers are rare in this town, but Isbell is a rare artist, suddenly capable of drawing a good 4,000 people over a pair of weeknights in a Midwestern market.
For this first round, Isbell and company started things with the new album’s title track, and continued with successive cuts from the record, lead single “24 Frames” and the shapeshifting “Palmetto Rose.” The stage was adorned with three beautiful replica stained glass windows above a line of overhead worklights, tipped horizontally and pointed directly out at the crowd, which were used to dramatic effect throughout the evening. 400 Unit shows are taken to another level on nights when Isbell’s wife, fiddler Amanda Shires, is in the house., which is not always a sure bet, given that she’s a busy (and accomplished) performing artist in her own right. But there she was on Tuesday, plugged in at stage left, lending her gorgeous background vocals to “Stockholm” and locking eyes with her husband as they harmonized on “Traveling Alone.”
Isbell pulled out relative rarity “Dress Blues,” which dates back to his solo debut Sirens of the Ditch. It’s a late-Bush era rumination on the death of a soldier he knew, and the toll it takes on a small town. “What did they say when they shipped you away/To fight somebody’s Hollywood war?” It’s one of Isbell’s great narratives, and possesses particular power in concert. Also in that club is “Decoration Day,” from Isbell’s first record as a member of Drive-By Truckers. It’s a brutal tale from the perspective of one of the last men left standing on one side of a bloody family feud. Guitarist Sadler Vaden, with whom Isbell shares lead and rhythm duties, added his own eerie touches over the verse fingerpicking.
The middle portion of the set featured a cluster of longtime setlist stalwarts, including the still-perfect “Alabama Pines” and “Codeine,” strung along by Derry Deborja’s bright blue accordion. Isbell’s sobriety was the primary narrative in the press around Southeastern, and the crowd roared their approval as he alluded to getting “off of that stuff/Forever, this time” during “Cover Me Up,” which Isbell wrote for Shires before they were married, and should stood to his left as his powerful tenor belted the words.
They brought the set to a close with another Truckers-era classic, “Never Gonna Change.” He’s gotten a lot of songwriting mileage over the years from rural southern crime, and this stands as one of the best. “My brother got picked up at Parker’s, got him a ride in a new Crown Vic/They said that he was moving on a Federal level/But they could never really make it stick.” The song’s defiant chorus is belied by its inherent hollowness, another hallmark of the nuanced prowess of Isbell’s craft. Vaden and Isbell traded fiery solos on the song’s extended coda, and the rhythm section of Jimbo Hart and fierce drummer Chad Gamble brought things home to a crashing finish. Isbell returned after a couple of minutes with Shires and Deborja for a beautiful rendition of Something More Than Free’s “Flagship,” and they closed the night with the pounding climax of “Children of Children.” Isbell has always been a force of nature in concert, but he and his band have nailed the escalation into large theaters (and beyond) without losing any of the spark that hallmarked their club days. There’s no doubt that he’ll continue playing great shows (like this one) for years to come.
Frank Turner and The Sleeping Souls opened the show with an energetic 45 minutes of the trademark folk punk that fills arenas in his native United Kingdom. Turner, who will return to the area in September for an appearance at Midpoint Music Festival, is tall and wiry, pogoing around the stage in a white button-down and a skinny black tie. Billy Bragg is an obvious touchpoint in Turner's music, although on Tuesday, at least, he didn't skew wrote as political. He called on an audience member named Tony to assist him with a harmonica solo during “Dan’s Song,” and performed “Glorious You,” the loveliest sing of the evening, solo acoustic. Many in the crowd were clearly present to see Turner, and they sang along gleefully to the likes of “The Next Storm” and the energetic closer “Get Better”.
Isbell and Turner will be back at the Taft tonight, and there are tickets still available.
Jason Isbell setlist:
Something More Than Free
Tour of Duty
The Life You Chose
Cover Me Up
If It Takes a Lifetime
Never Gonna Change
Children of Children
Frank Turner setlist:
I Still Believe
The Next Storm
I Am Disappeared
The Opening Act of Spring
The Way I Tend to Be