Three stained glass windows hung behind Jason Isbell and his band as they took the stage Thursday night at the Landmark Theatre in Syracuse. The lit windows showed birds around an anchor, perhaps in reference to the second song of the set, “Stockholm” with it’s lyric “Ships in the harbor and birds on the bluff / Don’t move an inch when their anchor goes up.” Whatever the interpretation, one thing was for sure, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit (Sadler Vaden on guitar, Jimbo Hart on bass, Derry DeBorja on keyboards, Chad Gamble on drums) were taking the theater to church, and they were reading from the Book of Isbell.
The show didn’t consist of too many extended rock outs though the musicians proved more than worthy of taking a song out to the woodshed on occasion, most notably for the bombastic guitar-fueled “Never Gonna Change” set closer. No, the highlighted items here were the songs, and o, what songs! Isbell’s last two albums, 2013’s Southeastern and last year’s Something More Than Free were met with much critical and award-winning acclaim. But no one needed the critics to tell them that they were witnessing the work of one of the greatest songwriters on the scene today.
The congregation sat in their pews, quietly attentive. They knew all the songs by heart, but they were there to hear Isbell’s voice sing Isbell’s words about Isbell’s life. His songs may be personal in genesis but, as with any great poetry, they are written to relate to any of its readers and listeners.
After lines of particular significance, the crowd would cheer loudly in approval. Amen! On the particularly poignant performance of “Cover Me Up,” with Isbell taking the stage solo for the first half, the audience was raucous after every single line. The rest of the band re-entered the stage one by one as the song built to a furious finish before some heavy mallet hits knocked it back down. The crowd weren’t the only ones to feel the power on that one. “Hell, let’s do that one again!” bellowed Isbell.
One enjoyable story was of the traditional spoken word variety. Isbell recounted the story of the band’s beginnings. He had been kicked out of his house and called up his good friend Jimbo Hart for a place to stay. He ended up sleeping in his kitchen on a futon he purchased for just that purpose. A few months later he also got kicked out of his band, the Drive-by Truckers. So he asked Hart if he wanted to be in his band. Hart again said yes and here they were, still playing music together.
In thanking tour mate Josh Ritter, Isbell said that Ritter’s on stage smiley personality was how he was off stage as well. “He’s either reading a different issue of the news than me or I’m just doing it wrong,” he quipped. Indeed, Ritter and his band (Mark Erelli on guitar, Zack Hickman on bass, Ray Rizzo on drums) played a joyful 45 minute opening set filled with his own brand of folk songs.
Unfortunately, they experienced some technical difficulties when the PA cut out, emitting a droning electronic beat. With the sound cut, the band went fully acoustic, and stood at the front of the stage for a two song un-mic’d performance. As a testament to both the acoustics of the beautiful old theater and the pure talent of the musicians on stage, they pulled it off perfectly, even producing the highlight of the set. To hear completely unfiltered voices and instruments come together is a rare treat, particularly in a venue of this size. It is always interesting to see how musicians will handle adversity during their set and, ever the optimist, Ritter made lemonade out of lemons.