For a third consecutive year, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit is bringing their tightly-honed, poetic country-rock stylings to Nashville‘s Ryman Auditorium for a multi-night run of shows. This year, the group’s eight nights kicked off Oct. 12 and will end Sunday (Oct. 22).
Long a luminary and musical beacon in Americana music circles, Isbell has played over 50 shows at the Ryman. Saturday night’s (Oct. 21) performance, the seventh of the eight Ryman shows, served as a testament to not only the strength of the band’s nuanced performances, but a confidence in the room itself, whose sturdy acoustics and intimate capacity over just over 2,300 have become a trusted counterpart.
In 2021, the opening slots for the group’s slate of Ryman shows showcased mighty talents from several Black female artists, including Brittney Spencer, Allison Russell and Mickey Guyton. For 2023, the opening slots highlighted several LGBTQ+ artists, including artists that identify as nonbinary or trans. During his headlining set, Isbell praised Saturday night’s opener Adeem the Artist (known for the 2022 album White Trash Revelry), calling Adeem’s music “true, honest, and great music.”
Isbell and company launched the headlining portion of the evening with “24 Frames,” from the 2015 album, Something More Than Free, followed by the neo-classic “King of Oklahoma,” from his 2023 album, Weathervanes, which brought rowdy cheers from the crowd thanks to what became a lengthy guitar jam with scorching work from bandmember Sadler Vaden. From there, Isbell and company roared through over a dozen songs, a mix of songs from Weathervanes and dipping into the group’s previous albums. Along the way, the set brimmed with anthemic choruses, well-crafted narratives and free-wheeling rock.
“Take the spirit in here with you when you go out there, because they need all the help they can get,” Isbell told the packed Ryman Auditorium audience, which spanned generations of devoted Isbell fans, many of whom were attending multiple nights on this Nashville run of concerts.
Like so many singer-songwriters in Nashville and beyond, four-time Grammy winner Isbell’s musical sketches are largely drawn from his own life — a journey that has seen the Alabama-born songcrafter get his start in the alt-country group Drive-By Truckers, before issuing his debut solo album, Sirens of the Ditch, and forming the 400 Unit, along the way embracing sobriety (captured in his much-heralded album Southeastern), marriage and fatherhood. All the while, maturity and his gift for keen-eyed observations have further steeped his music in layer upon layer of timely-and timeless-sketches of his own experiences and of those around him.
From Weathervanes, they offered “Strawberry Woman,” “Death Wish” and fan-favorite “Cast Iron Skillet.” The crowd cheered their approval at Vaden and Isbell’s roaring-yet-intimate guitar tangling on “This Ain’t It.” The somber “Save the World” drew on the impact of school shootings, touching on parental anxieties with lyrics that ponder keeping a child home from school and details a heightened urge of self-preservation.
The set included the rollicking “Speed Trap Town,” which details the narrator’s need to escape a small town where his father is dying and his family’s story is known by everyone, as well as “Super 8,” a bleary-eyed look at wild nights on the road. They followed with “Streetlights,” “If You Insist,” and the sobering “Elephant.”
He closed with “Cover Me Up,” which has become a mainstay in his set and a lofty fan-favorite, and favored cover song for several other artists. Isbell slowly, painstakingly built the song from its threadbare beginnings — with just Isbell alone at the mic — as members of the band joined in, the song swelling into a righteous, half-sung, half-shouted plea. As it does in most Isbell shows, the torn-from-personal-experience line “But I sobered up and I swore off that stuff/ Forever this time,” brought a wave of cheers and applause.
As Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit left the stage, the audience cheered, clapped and stomped, demanding an encore. To the band’s credit, they made fans work for it a bit, waiting several minutes until the crowd had frothed to a fever pitch before returning to the stage to play “Alabama Pines,” followed by ceding the spotlight to drummer Will Johnson to play one of his own compositions.
The nine-time Americana Music Honors & Awards winners’ final Ryman show on on this run concludes Sunday (Oct. 22), one of several shows leading up to the group’s opening slot on “I Remember Everything” hitmaker Zach Bryan’s stadium tour next year — an appropriate pairing, given Bryan’s frequent nods to Isbell’s music as a key influence and the surge of Americana/rock-soaked, guitar-fueled artists such as Bryan and Noah Kahan into mainstream, genre-blurring music leaders.