Singer-songwriters play on consecutive nights at Tennessee, Bijou theaters
It may seem odd to some – it certainly does to me – but Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit have been a touring act for 10 years now, graduating from playing small rooms like Barley’s in the Old City and the Square Room in Market Square to performing two sold-out shows in as many nights at the Tennessee Theatre. Over that decade, Isbell has evolved from an act that relied on covers and material culled from his years with the Drive-By Truckers to a confident and mature performer who has six complete albums from which to draw. He has evolved personally, as well, transitioning from the hard-partier who got sober, made “Southeastern” and changed his life into a married father who is increasingly comfortable asserting his progressive political views. The first of two assured performances, this one on Tuesday, May 8, felt like a graduation after a decade of hard work and growth.
However, before Isbell shone that evening, Richard Thompson took to the stage. With 40 years of recording behind him, Thompson – a guitarist’s guitarist and one of the most influential songwriters of the last half century – boasts much more material than could fit into an opening-act slot. Isbell, a huge fan, personally asked him to join him for this April/May mini-tour, and it was an inspired pairing. Playing solo with nothing except his signature Lowden acoustic and his delightful, dry wit, Thompson captivated the large crowd from the start, beginning with “When the Spell is Broken.” His 10-song set included “Crocodile Tears,” which drew huge laughs; “Vincent Black Lightning 1952,” with the city of Boxhill changed to Knoxville, of course; “The Rattle Within,” a new song; and “I Feel So Good.”
With the capacity crowd humming, Isbell took to the stage on time, backed by a beautiful, new lighting arrangement centered on his emblematic anchor and sparrow logo. Drawing mostly (eight songs) from last year’s “The Nashville Sound,” Isbell and his band delivered a 19-song powerhouse set. Opening with “Anxiety” and “Hope the High Road,” the set included two Drive-By Truckers’ songs (“Decoration Day” and “Outfit”) and four tracks from his breakthrough, “Southeastern,” including a lovely “Cover Me Up” presented with a sparse new arrangement that let Isbell’s powerful, expressive voice shine. Other highlights included an expanded “Cumberland Gap” that let the 400 Unit and ace guitarist Sadler Vaden stretch out; a rollicking “Codeine,” with keyboardist Derry deBorja strapping on an accordion and joining Isbell at the front of the stage; and “Speed Trap Town,” where the band once again transformed a mid-tempo strummer into a muscular rocker.
The main set concluded with “Children of Children.” After a short break, the band returned for a bruising run through “Super 8,” highlighted by bassist Jimbo Hart’s harmony vocals. The show concluded with a delicate take on “If We Were Vampires,” a song that illustrates Isbell’s personal growth and that contains a unique viewpoint that marks him as a songwriter sure to have a decade as remarkable as the one he just concluded. If you missed the Knoxville shows, don’t fret: Although there are no Tennessee dates scheduled for his recently announced summer/fall tour, you can catch him this summer at Sloss Fest in Birmingham, Alabama, at Forecastle Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, and at FloydFest in Floyd, Virginia.
By some coincidence of the universe, as a newly minted star equally famous for sobriety and astute songwriting took the stage at the Tennessee Theatre for a second night, the creator of the mold was playing before a capacity crowd just over a block down Gay Street at the Bijou Theatre. After 18 albums and decades of touring, Steve Earle has a wealth of material from which to draw and a wealth of stories to tell in between songs, including an amusing anecdote about being in Knoxville with the V-Roys when a certain famous football player tried to assert a head-of-the-line privilege that Earle didn’t feel he deserved. Still, tonight was all about the music, and aside from a couple brief remarks, Earle let his lyrics do the talking (until the encore, at least, but more on that in a moment).
This year marks the 30-year anniversary of “Copperhead Road,” an album that both garnered Earle a huge new audience and brought his political views into the spotlight for the first time. In honor of that, Earle is playing the album in full to start each show. Full-album shows for me always have been a mixed bag: the joy of hearing some rarely performed side-two tracks balanced out by the loss of unpredictability and surprise. As such, Earle began the show with a somewhat desultory run through the title song, one I’ve always felt that he plays with more obligation than joy. However, things warmed up quickly with “Snake Oil,” a rocking little ditty about the Reagan era that Earle updated with a new intro stating that time is a circle and what goes around always returns. “Devil’s Right Hand,” was preceded by a short speech about how proud the March for Our Lives movement made him feel; it and the Bo Diddley-inflected and rarely performed “You Belong to Me” were highlights of the album portion of the set.
Once the album was completed, Earle performed three muscular cuts in a row taken from his most recent release, “So You Wanna Be an Outlaw,” before going all the way back to his first record for “My Old Friend the Blues,” “Someday” and “Guitar Town,” which allowed Dukes’ guitarist Chris Masterson to flex his muscles on baritone. “I’m Still in Love With You” was another clear highlight, with violinist Eleanor Whitmore shining on the part of the duet originally sung by Iris DeMent. Strong runs through “Galway Girl,” “Week of Living Dangerously” and “Fixing to Die” followed before the set concluded with the somewhat puzzling choice of a cover of “Hey Joe,” a disappointingly hoary choice for an artist with such an excellent knowledge of music history and such a magnificent songbook of his own.
Earle came back strong in the encore, though, performing beautiful renditions of two of his best historical songs, “Ben McCulloch” and “Dixieland.” Afterwards, the band left the stage, leaving Earle alone with just a guitar in hand to deliver a 10-12 minute speech during which he touched upon a multitude of subjects: his love of Knoxville, his marriages, his therapy, politics and his future plans. Earle revealed that he has “a lot” of political songs written, but he wants to do something special with them. As a result, he said his next project will be to record an album of Guy Clark covers over the summer. He plans to keep writing, to release a heavily political album in late 2019 or early 2020 and to tour behind it. As Earle wound up his speech, the band returned and concluded the show with a wonderful rendition of “Girl on a Mountain.”