Isbell and his 400 Unit team up with the British legend at the Tennessee Theater.
By Lee Zimmerman / Photos by Alisa B. Cherry
Though some members of the audience might have had some reservations about a 50 year musical veteran like Richard Thompson playing a solo opening set for a comparative newcomer like Jason Isbell and his band the 400 Unit, the commonality in terms of their songwriting styles helped ensure a seamless evening.
Thompson, armed with only his guitar and his subtle sense of humor, was consistently communicative with the audience, albeit in a self-mocking manner. “Some say that my music is almost devoid of emotion,” he joked. “Can you believe that? It may be depressing but it varies from slow depressing to medium depressing. Now here’s some fast depressing,” and with that he launched into an uptempo take on “Valerie.”
“I’m quite old, at least compared to you frisky young people,” he wryly remarked, before catching a glimpse of the mostly middle aged crowd and causing him to correct himself. “Oh I take that back,” he joked. Nevertheless, a touching take on “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” written by and dedicated to Fairport Convention co-founder Sandy Denny brought some sobriety to the proceedings, before being upended by the rousing “Feel So Good,” one of the most rollicking tunes in the Thompson repertoire.
Introducing his classic “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” Thompson credited Del McCoury for turning the song into a hit on the bluegrass charts, while also noting that though he originally referenced the rolling hills of England in the lyric, the imagery could just as well have referred to East Tennessee.
Nevertheless, it was evident that the crowd was there to see Isbell and his crew, and the recognition that greeted his hour and half- long set — much of it drawn from his remarkable new album The Nashville Sound — was both rowdy and receptive. Isbell showed off his skill on lead guitar, but it was his sheer presence alone – an image that suggested a cross between Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle – that had the most riveting effect. A journeyman musician of the working class variety, his songs evoke both persistence and pathos, and when the band went full throttle on songs such as “Anxiety,” “Hope the High Road,” “Last of My Kind” and “Something More,” they did so with a ferocity that was absolutely anthemic in proportion.
That said, Isbell kept his comments to a minimum, thanking the crowd for coming, introducing the band and noting his admiration for his surroundings — no surprise considering the historic theater’s regal environs. Mostly, he dug into the melodies, extracting every bit of energy and intensity he could ply from his delivery. By the time the band reached the second offering of the two song encore, he was content to simply ply some emotion. The tender and touching “If We Were Vampires,” a song about the fleeting time span of lifelong romance, ended the set on a thoughtful note, a compelling contrast to the intensity he and his bandmates exuded earlier.
Contact photographer Alisa B. Cherry: firstname.lastname@example.org