Jason Isbell’s story is one of recovery and redemption so it was only fitting that the backdrop he played in front of for Friday night’s show at the Ogden Theatre were large, church-like, stained glass windows. After being ousted by the Drive-By Truckers in 2007, the 36-year-old Alabama native took years to find his footing — mired in a heavy drinking routine that slowed his creative pace. In 2013 after giving up alcohol for good, he released Southeastern, his best album to date and a major turning point in his career. He followed with 2015’s Something More than Free which just earned a Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album. The concert on Friday showcased Isbell as, not only a highly professional and skilled performer, but as a poet, a tragic figure and one of the best songwriters in the world (and one who just announced a headlining date at Red Rocks for 2016).
Even before Southeastern’s release, Isbell had always written incredible songs. On this night, he started the show with “Go It Alone” from 2011’s Here We Rest. While this song was written before his sobriety, it still hints at his struggle to do so with lines like “It's realizing just how close you've come to death, and rearranging accordingly. I'm realizing what I've lost and what I've left and taking it home to go it alone again.” Isbell’s voice, which has become even more powerful as of late, sang these lines proudly to a sold-out Ogden crowd — his second in consecutive nights.
Isbell and his long-time band, The 400 Unit, followed with “Something More than Free” which discusses the value of a hard day’s work, and then “Stockholm” which tells the tale of his wife Amanda Shires' role in his sobriety and helping him through withdrawal. The juxtaposition of themes like this displayed Isbell's range as a storyteller and showcased his ability to encapsulate listeners' experiences, no matter how loosely or closely his songs directly pertain to one's life.
The 400 Unit played a few light-hearted numbers in a row with “Tour of Duty,” “Dress Blue” and “Codeine,” which saw keyboardist Derry deBorja, switching to accordion and dancing around playfully on stage with Isbell. The rest of the 400 unit — bassist Jimbo Hart, guitarist Sadler Vaden, and drummer Chad Gamble — elevated Isbell’s songs with precision and power, musically extending several songs, including “Codeine” and “Children of Children," into long and triumphant outros. While Isbell’s last two albums have been without the 400 Unit moniker, this group of musicians has been with Isbell since 2009’s Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit album.
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Isbell’s most personal song, “Cover Me Up,” which features the line “I sobered up, I swore off that stuff, forever this time,” brought tears and massive applause from the audience, who held up glasses of alcohol in a celebratory cheers, that, while ironic and slightly inappropriate, was one of the most powerful moments of the night.
Before an encore of “Elephant” and “Super 8,” Isbell played “Outfit” and “Ain't Never Gonna Change” from his Drive-By Truckers days. While songs like this were written long before he emerged as the powerhouse he is today, they are important benchmarks in a still-burgeoning career and a reminder that every misstep along the way shaped him into what he has become.