Jason Isbell’s star has been rising for some time now, and with his latest release The Nashville Sound, the Alabama-born country singer and former Drive-By Truckers member appears to have truly broken into the mainstream. His first album credited to him and his band The 400 Unit since 2011’s Here We Rest (both 2013’s Southeastern and 2015’s Something More Than Free featured the band, but were billed as solo releases), The Nashville Sound contains some of Isbell’s most rocking solo moments yet. When Isbell was last at Merriweather Post Pavilion in 2015, it was as an opener for My Morning Jacket, a band making its first foray into headlining amphitheater-sized venues. This time it was Isbell’s turn, playing to a packed audience on a hot late-June night in Columbia.
Isbell opened the set with the sweeping opening chord progressions of “Anxiety,” a mid-album track from the new record that settles into a mid-tempo rocker as he sings of his problems with feeling like “I’m never where I’m supposed to be.” It’s one of the most personal songs on the album from a songwriter who has become known for his frequently confessional style, and it served to set the tone for the evening. On “Hope the High Road,” Isbell addressed the many people who might be feeling disenfranchised right now – “Last year was a son-of-a-bitch for here on the road.” In “White Man’s World” he attempts to take on issues of social privilege and race and gender politics (our podcast crew felt that he didn’t take those ideas nearly far enough). From a less skilled songwriter, many of his sentiments might feel heavy-handed, but Isbell for the most part deftly treads the line of sharing his feelings without coming off as preachy or condescending. Having a social conscience isn’t exactly a new thing in country music (artists like Willie Nelson and Neil Young have been tackling social problems for years), but in a genre often known for its conservative leanings, in our current political climate, it's still refreshing to see him take these issues on.
If Isbell has found himself thrust into the spotlight, he’s making the best of it while still trying to stay humble. Between songs he noted what an honor it was to be playing in such a large venue, and that he hoped to keep playing there for years to come. But, he added with a note of dry humor, when the time came that he couldn’t sell that many tickets anymore, he’d be happy to return to opening for the next young act to find its way into his position. At another point, he noted how grateful he was to be able to travel with his family for this tour – his wife, fiddler Amanda Shires, was able to break from her own solo work to come as part of his band this time, and his almost-two-year-old daughter was in the audience. He spoke of writing “Cover Me Up” for Shires, and his nervousness at playing it for her for the first time.
Isbell drew the largest part of his setlist for the evening from the new album, playing eight of the ten tracks off of it. But he supplemented this with several songs from two previous albums, playing “24 Frames,” “If It Takes a Lifetime,” and “Something More Than Free” from Something More Than Free, and “Flying Over Water” from Southeastern. He also included two of the most popular songs which he penned during his time as a member of the Drive-By Truckers, “Decoration Day” and “Never Gonna Change.” For the encore, he performed a stripped-back, almost solo rendition of “If We Were Vampires,” sung on-stage to Shires (who added backing vocals toward the end), followed by one of the real highlights of the night, an extended cover of The Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post,” dedicated to the recently deceased Gregg Allman.
Durham, North Carolina-based indie folk band The Mountain Goats, who recently released their sixteenth studio album Goths on Merge Records, opened the show. While they played a few songs from their latest album, including “Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds” and “Rain In Soho,” they spent much of their twelve-song set playing fan favorites from their back catalog, including “This Year” (from 2005’s The Sunset Tree), “Damn These Vampires” (from 2011’s All Eternals Deck), and “Spent Gladiator 2” (from 2012’s Transcendental Youth).