It’s rare that a concert makes such an impression that it sticks with you days later.
If I can get lost in a show without analyzing the sound quality, forget to check the time, and shout “woo!” with the rest of the audience (especially as a reviewer), then the band has really done its job. If the show not only inspires everything from toe-tapping or full-on dancing and singing along but also manages to make you laugh and brings you to tears, then the performance has gone beyond.
Jason Isbell’s return to Ovens Auditorium Friday had it all – although the laughs were on account of opener Frank Turner’s antics.
Isbell could be the finest songwriter of his generation, and I’d venture that he and his band, the 400 Unit, are one of the finest acts currently touring. His last three times in Charlotte were easily in the running for show of the year, and that includes this year’s two-night stand at Ovens.
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A great opening act isn’t essential to a top-tier concert, but it sure does help; and Turner proved himself a brilliant showman as he and his band the Sleeping Souls plowed through 45 minutes of rousing folk-punk and sing-along adult pop, including his biggest commercial hit, “The Way I Tend To Be.”
A lesser artist than Isbell might’ve been intimidated by just how good of an opener Turner and his band are, but those other acts don’t have the 400 Unit to back them up.
Friday’s set relied heavily on Isbell’s latest album, “The Nashville Sound” – the first to feature his band in the title since 2011’s “Here We Rest” (which was represented by “Alabama Pines” and “Codeine”). It opened with the bombastic, arena-ready intro of “Anxiety,” followed by “Hope the High Road” and his Grammy-winning “24 Frames,” which fell early in Saturday’s set as well.
While the band played several of the same songs both nights – either tracks from the new album or older songs so beloved they can’t be cut – neither night eclipsed the other. Saturday featured more nods to Isbell’s Drive-By Truckers’ days, with Isbell-penned fan favorites “Decoration Day” and “Outfit.” Friday’s final pre-encore song, “Never Gonna Change,” was its only DBT reference.
As for his solo work, Saturday traded “Stockholm” for “Elephant” and “Traveling Alone” for “Dress Blues,” but both nights were capped by the sensual, stirring “Cover Me Up,” which Isbell wrote for and sung with his wife, fiddler and backing vocalist Amanda Shires, who was named Americana Music Awards’ Emerging Artist of the Year just last week for her solo work.
The couple’s knowing glances and eye contact were swoon-worthy as they harmonized on “Cover Me Up,” “Traveling Alone,” and the encore of “If We Were Vampires.” There’s such intimacy and love wrapped in those words.
Isbell’s most political statement, “White Man’s World” (from “The Nashville Sound”), addressed white male privilege and responsibility to those that have been harmed or discriminated against in its name. In just a few words, the song touches on male-dominance in country music and the strides women have made there, the plight of American Indians, and segregation.
It’s not meant to make the audience comfortable, and as Isbell sang the chorus – “There’s no such thing as someone else’s war/You’re creature comforts aren’t the only thing worth fighting for…” – I realized his predominantly white audience is exactly who needs to hear it.
Isbell’s lyrics and arrangements are also so skilled you almost forget that he rips on guitar, riding a blues groove while shredding and trading licks with Charlotte-born guitarist Sadler Vaden – just one of the five long-time band members who add subtle character to the songs and the show.
It’s a band that I wouldn’t hesitate to see again. In fact, Saturday after work, I put “The Nashville Sound” on the turntable and turned it up loud as I made dinner, wishing I was two miles away at Ovens watching Turner and Isbell and the 400 Unit all over again.