Jason Isbell complimented his hosts during his appearance as one of the primary headlining acts of Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest on Friday. The singer-songwriter told an audience of about 1,600 at the Uptown Theater that “this is the kind of festival that makes sense to me. It’s dark and we’re inside. ... And every little piece of American rock ‘n’ roll music came from right here in the middle of the map.”
Isbell’s work as a member of the astute Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers and as a solo artist reflects his reverence for roots-oriented sounds. His nearly two-hour outing on Friday confirmed that the Alabama native is also intent on carving out a prominent place for himself in the annals of American music.
In addition to being an impressive vocalist, guitarist and bandleader, Isbell is one of the most compelling songwriters of the new millennium. The compositions from his forthcoming album, “The Nashville Sound,” his sixth solo effort, indicated that Isbell remains on an inspired streak of consequential rock that’s worthy of comparison to the artistic peak of Bruce Springsteen. Isbell’s lack of mainstream hits is a reflection of the precipitous decline in the popularity of rock rather than in his ability to craft memorable songs.
Isbell sang that “I’ve heard enough of the white man’s blues” on the captivating new composition “Hope the High Road.” Even so, he continues to voice the anxieties of everyday Americans with literary agility. On “24 Frames,” a song about maintaining faith and family ties in spite of the ephemeral nature of life, Isbell sang “you thought God was an architect, now you know He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.”
The material was given additional heft by the 400 Unit, Isbell’s backing ensemble that’s as potent as Springsteen’s E-Street Band and Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. They gave “Codeine” a loose-limbed Texas swing treatment and roughed up “Decoration Day” with ferocious aggressiveness. Isbell’s wife, Amanda Shires, a violinist who spent a portion of her childhood in the Kansas City area, accentuated the latter song’s violent theme with a mournful solo.
The opening set by the Philadelphia based psychedelic Americana band Strand of Oaks was filled with excitable exuberance. Bandleader Timothy Showalter repeatedly yelped “I wanna get it back” on “Radio Kids,” a gloriously disheveled song about the joy of discovering exciting new music, a thrilling experience that’s at the core of Ink’s Middle of the Map Fest.
JASON ISBELL SETLIST
Go It Alone
Something More Than Free
How to Forget
Hope the High Road
Speed Trap Town
If It Takes a Lifetime
Cover Me Up
If We Were Vampires
Never Gonna Change