The best songwriters do more than merely set lyrics to melodies. They are poets and preachers who deliver parables about life — keen observations and hard lessons learned, all wrapped in song.
Jason Isbell has become one of his generation’s best songwriters. A Southerner with a poet’s heart and a novelist’s eye for detail and narrative, he can spin yarns or concoct sermons that resonate lyrically and musically.
Wednesday night, Isbell performed before a crowd of more than 1,500 at the Uptown Theater, singing tales of love, loss, defeat, resignation and reward, all in a voice weathered and honed by experience and wisdom.
He and his four-man band, the 400 Unit, opened with “24 Frames,” a rollicking folk-rock anthem embellished by some slide guitar in which the narrator stares down life’s perils and tribulations unequivocally: “You thought God was an architect; now you know / He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.”
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He followed that with “Palmetto Rose,” a song about the working class and its hard-earned nickels that references Charleston, S.C., home of his guitarist, Sadler Vaden: “This war that I wage to get up every day / It’s a fiberglass boat, it’s azaleas in May / It’s the women I love and the law that I hate / Lord let me die in the Iodine State.”
Both songs are off “Something More Than Free,” the stellar album he released in July. It’s Isbell’s fifth full-length since 2007, the year he left the Drive-By Truckers, the insurgent-country/Southern rock band that introduced him to the music world.
His set list included some of his best and most-beloved Truckers songs, starting with “Decoration Day,” a clarion call about the high price and rewards of freedom.
Later, he played “Outfit,” an anthem about working-class pride, then “Never Gonna Change,” a rip-roaring rocker about the South and its mean, ornery ways: “And Daddy used to empty out his shotgun shells / And fill ’em full of black-eyed peas / He’d aim real low and he’d tear out your ankles / Or rip right through your knees.” That one ended with a fiery Southern-rock jam in which Vaden and drummer Chad Gamble showed off a fury of chops and licks.
His band was spartan but stout — guitar, keyboards and a sturdy rhythm section — but it missed the vocals and violin of Isbell’s wife, Amanda Shires, who gave birth to the couple’s first child in September. The stage was set with three large stained-glass windows and five large globes that shone in various intensities throughout the show.
Isbell performed a few songs solo/acoustic, including one of his most popular songs, “Cover Me Up” — 6 million hits on Spotify — a song about a hard-earned sobriety and a new addiction: sex and romance. Every song on the set list was well-received, but that one aroused the loudest cheer.
He ended the first set with “Children of Children, a “Free” song about teenage parents: “You were riding on your mother’s hip / She was shorter than the corn / All the years you took from her / Just by being born.”
The three-song encore included the song “Something More Than Free” and “Codeine,” a track from “Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit.” It’s another parable about addiction, hard-living and rocky romance. From another songwriter, it might have seemed like a depressive place to go for the end of a show. But Isbell, 36, a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for almost four years, can only sing about the places he has been, the dark and the light, with uncommon candor and flair.
24 Frames; Palmetto Rose; Stockholm; Decoration Day; How to Forget; Dress Blues; Alabama Pines; Different Days; Outfit; Never Gonna Change; Cover Me Up; If It Takes a Lifetime; The Life You Chose; Traveling Alone; Flying Over Water; Speed Trap Town; Children of Children. Encore: Elephant; Something More Than Free; Codeine.