Live Review: Jason Isbell sheds skin, shreds guitar for two hour set at Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall — 10.19.16

Jason Isbell is a brave guy. Dig a little deeper under the surface of the tall, stoic Alabaman’s exterior and it’s not hard to hear him bare his soul or tout his musical influences. The slender, lanky singer-songwriter has no problem delivering solemn, heartfelt, direct killer tunes and pouring every ounce of himself into them.

With a steadily growing, passionate fan base feverishly supporting him, Isbell’s appeal seems to know no boundaries. His frequent touring schedule has garnered him the ability to play larger venues each time he hits the road and, based on the absolutely stellar two-hour performance he unleashed on an adoring near-capacity crowd at Ruth Eckerd Hall on Wednesday night, his appeal as a dynamic live performer will undoubtedly continue to spread.

Taking the darkened stage that was illuminated only by bright, brilliant faux stained glass windows at the rear just before 8:45 p.m., Isbell and his four piece band wasted no time getting the already-rowdy crowd even more fired up and preparing them for a long, thrilling night of music.

Opening the evening with “Flying Over Water”, one of the many featured tunes from his outstanding 2013 release Southeastern, Isbell sounded strong and commanding. Benefitting from the nuances and the flair his band adds to his sound, Isbell’s Southern-fried mix of country, pop, rock and folk entertained the loose crowd for the next two solid hours and just continued to gain momentum and firepower as the night wore on.

Dressed in casual black short-sleeved button up shirt and skin tight straight legged blue jeans, Isbell paced and lumbered away from his mic between lines and seemed comfortable and totally in control all night long. His smart, lyrical wordplay bring the great John Prine to mind while his penchant for pop hooks and jangle recall Tom Petty; not a bad musical place to draw from by any means. Add in a little bit of Steve Earle’s rebellious outlaw spirit and you’ve got something that really can be categorized as pure, unadulterated Jason Isbell…which is why his fans love him so much. There aren’t many guys out on the road delivering this level of performance and this caliber of musical catalog to boast.

Isbell’s raspy vocals sounded incredible all night whether engulfing the somber earnest balladry of “Traveling Alone” or ripping apart the sizzling southern rocker “Never Gonna Change” (a number from his stint as a member of Drive-By Truckers).

Major kudos are also in order for the sound guy who made each and every instrument onstage sound crystal clear without the slightest hint of feedback or a muddy mix; Isbell’s vocals soared clearly over the music and blended magnificently with the aura and the vibe the band carried out all night.

Isbell’s incredible versatility can be best measured by his effortless ability to shift gears from the quiet, hushed tones of a quiet, gorgeous number like “Alabama Pines” and then launch into the slide-guitar drenched rocker “Super 8”. Not easy to pull off effectively…but don’t tell Jason Isbell that…onstage, this guy knows no limits or setbacks; let him loose and, as he continues to warm and settle in, his true charm shines through and dazzles. I’ve seen many try to do what Jason Isbell does and I’ve seen many fall flat; however, I can wholeheartedly say that, after witnessing this, one of the better shows from recent memory, that Isbell is the real deal and that his ongoing mission to deliver pure, honest music from his soul and his heart is unmatched.

The same can be said for folk/alt-country artist Josh Ritter who opened the night with an all-too-brief forty minute set that seems to fly by. Backed by his sparse three-piece band, Ritter treated the audience (many who seemed to be familiar with a lot of his material) to a solid sampling of his own brand of acoustic country/folk. Ritter’s ever-present smile gave the impression that he was damn glad to be onstage and he and his band’s blended vocal harmonies added warmth and charm to their humble delivery.

Joining Isbell later in the night for a duet and tribute to their “mutual hero” John Prine (who recently turned 70 years old), and unleashed a red hot version of one of Prine’s many musical gems “Storm Windows”.  

When recalling the year’s best local shows as this year draws to a close, this night will certainly be ranked among the very best by everyone in attendance. And for those who haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Jason Isbell live, make a point of it next time he visits the area. It’s safe to say he’s in his absolute musical prime and I can only imagine he has many more years of great records and memorable live shows in his arsenal.