Review: Jason Isbell & Josh Ritter
by Tim Borland
The road to aduccess for Alabama native Jason Isbell has taken many turns along the way, but ultimately leading to resounding success. The musician is priginally from Green Hill, Ala., and received his first publishing deal from FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala. at the young age of 21. By 2001, the musician had become an official member of Drive By Truckers, who he would record and tour with for six years.
Once Isbell created his touring band The 400 Unit, he gained the opportunity to support of Ryan Adams in 2012. Two years later the Alabama phenom won the Americana Music Awards Album of the Year for his third album “Southeastern,” a feat which Isbell topped by winning two Grammy Awards for his 2015 album “Something More Than Free.”
Despite all these accomplishments, Isbell’s fanbase continues to bubble up just under the mainstream, which is not necessarily a bad position to be in. The songwriter continues to grow and has built a loyal fanbase that will continue to support him in the future. Mobile, Ala. is very much a party of that fanbase, and showed their vocal support for Isbell when he appeared at the Mobile Saenger Theater on Oct. 21, presented by Huka Entertainment.
The audience had already been warmed up by a solid set from Idaho born tourmate Josh Ritter. The musician’s complex brand of lyricism was a good match for Isbell. A renown songwriter himself, Ritter is fresh off cowriting several of the songs from “Blue Mountain,” Bob Weir’s of Grateful Dead fame’s recent solo LP. To read Mod Mobilian’s exclusive Q&A with Josh Ritter, explore the link below:
After Ritter warmed up the crowd, the stage dressings were modified with a backdrop that resembled stained glass church windows. Multicolored lights splashed different patterns onto the floor of the stage, adding more visual appeal. Once Isbell appeared onstage, the crowd voiced their approval with hoots and hollers. The 400 Unit band launched into their particular brand of southeastern rock amidst cajoling from the crowd.
The third song of the setlist was “24 Frames,” winner of the Best American Roots Song Grammy award. The multitude of people packed within the historic theater walls erupted in cheers every time the familiar four note slide guitar lick squealed from guitarist Sadler Vaden’s amplifiers. The fervor within the Mobile fanbase that evening was palpable.
In-between songs, Isbell addressed the crowd:
“There is so little times between tours that I feel like we never really stop touring. I’m glad we got to come so near to home,” Isbell conveyed.
In response, various voices in the crowd chimed in with “You are home!” and “Alabama Boy!”
Alabama boys Jason Isbell and Jimbo Hart
During the performance, Isbell acknowledged another ‘Alabama boy,’ his bassist Jimbo Hart from Sheffield, Ala. As the set continued, the band performed several more favorites such as “Speed Trap Town,” “If It Takes a Lifetime,” “Elephant,” “Alabama Pines,” “Relatively Easy,” and “Cover Me Up.” Just prior to the encore, Isbell surprised the audience with two of his compositions from Drive By Truckers: “Outfit” from the album “Decoration Day” and the instantly recognizable “Never Gonna Change” from the album “The Dirty South,” drawing even more electricity from listeners with lyrics like “…strong like the people from South Alabama.”
A trio encore began with a cover of John Prine’s “Storm Windows” performed alongside special guest Josh Ritter. “Super 8” and “Children of Children,” the latter of which is based upon Isbell’s parent’s ages of 17 and 19 when he was born, finished out the night to ecstatic applause.
If the Mobile Saenger performance is any indication, Southeastern music is alive and well. Jason Isbell performs not only with solid conviction, but as if he is a musician on a mission to evolve. Alabama musicians continue to innovate within their respective genres, defying expectations of how music from this region should sound. By receiving home state audience support, locals can help bolster Alabama’s scene as the music proceeds to gain more national attention.