Jason Isbell raises the bar for Americana at ACL Live

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Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, with a set that brought to mind Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, at ACL Live. Photo by Peter Blackstock
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, with a set that brought to mind Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, at ACL Live. Photo by Peter Blackstock

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, with a set that brought to mind Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, at ACL Live. Photo by Peter Blackstock

When Jason Isbell says he can’t think of a better place to open a tour than in Austin, it’s not just idle “Hello Cleveland” talk. Dating back to his days with the indie Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers before he struck out on his own with the 400 Unit, he’s played here many times, and it’s been a long climb up to a sold-out two-night stand at ACL Live.

He recounted many steps that led here midway through his brilliant set Thursday night. The Parish, the old Antone’s and Emo’s, the sound-deficient La Zona Rosa, even the shuttered Mexican restaurant Jovita’s: He still remembers, and that’s part of what makes his arrival as contemporary roots music’s brightest star so special. He earned it the hard way.

On Monday, he’ll be in Los Angeles for the Grammys, nominated for Best Americana Album for last year’s “Something More Than Free” and Best American Roots Song for its lead single, “24 Frames.” He played that song and seven others from “Something More Than Free” on this night, connecting deeply with the audience on numbers such as “The Life That Chose You” and “If It Takes a Lifetime” that balance Isbell’s sense for effortlessly tuneful songcraft with a lyrical grace on par with living legends like John Prine and Kris Kristofferson. Yes, he’s that good.

As good as the numbers from the new record were, the two-hour set served as a reminder that Isbell has been building toward this apex for a good while. He also tapped five songs from 2013’s “Southeastern,” the album that first served notice of his game-changing potential. He’s learned lessons from his singer-songwriter forbears – “Different Days” is a keen sequel of sorts to Jackson Browne’s “These Days” both in its title line and its main riff – but he steps clearly into his own voice on “Cover Me Up,” which he introduced with a heartfelt story about the first time he played it for fiddler and harmony singer Amanda Shires, now his wife.

An accomplished singer-songwriter in her own right, Shires is a ringer in the 400 Unit, which also features guitarist Sadler Vaden, bassist Jimbo Hart, keyboardist Derry DeBorja and drummer Chad Gamble. They support Isbell’s material with subtle empathy when the songs need it and at full throttle when he kicks rockers such as “Super 8” and “Decoration Day” into overdrive.

The latter song was one of three in Thursday’s set that reached back to Isbell’s Drive-By Truckers days, when he was a bright young star barely out of his teens who showed promise as an occasional songwriting contributor in a band that was loaded with talent. Little did we know just how much more was on Isbell’s horizon.

South Carolina guitar-and-drums duo Shovels & Rope proved an ideal opening act, setting the tone with roots-based material that alternated between old-school rock ’n’ roll and more plaintive country-folk. Husband-and-wife Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst saved the best for last, hitting magical harmonies on the clear crowd favorite “Birmingham.” (A note to those attending Friday’s show: The duo began its 45-minute set at 7:45 p.m.)

SET LIST:
1. Palmetto Rose
2. Go It Alone
3. Decoration Day
4. Traveling Alone
5. The Life That Chose You
6. Different Days
7. Outfit
8. Never Gonna Change
9. Something More Than Free
10. Stockholm
11. Dress Blues
12. 24 Frames
13. Cover Me Up
14. If It Takes a Lifetime
15. Speed Trap Town
16. Super 8
17. Children of Children
ENCORE:
18. Flagship
19. Codeine


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