The artist with the No. 1 album on Billboard’s country chart last weekend wasn’t booked at the massive three-day festival happening simultaneously in Mountain Home. In fact, Jason Isbell performed for a modest 785 fans when he visited Boise on Aug. 4.
But Isbell seemed like he was in a good place.
It wasn’t just the prim-and-proper Morrison Center, whose dated, no-drinks-in-the-auditorium policy felt appropriately paired with Isbell’s much-publicized sobriety. Looking slender, wearing a red-and-black plaid shirt and jeans, the Alabama-bred singer-songwriter seemed like he was in a good place in life.
“Something More Than Free,” Isbell’s fifth studio effort, also debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s rock chart and No. 3 overall. Alcohol hasn’t troubled his world in more than three years. Even the fiddle player missing from the stage felt like a positive: Amanda Shires Isbell is due with the couple’s first child next month.
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Isbell, 36, has evolved impressively since his days in the proudly raucous Drive-By Truckers, a critically acclaimed group he left in 2007. He now sings with more freedom and power. His pure, twang-tinged voice dominated the mix (which also occasionally took an extra-thunderous hit from bassist Jimbo Hart). Confident and smiling, Isbell worked the stage like a jungle cat, uncorking greasy, electric slide-guitar bursts on songs such as “24 Frames” and the Truckers-era “Decoration Day.”
His songs keep evolving, too. “Never Gonna Change,” a loose, anthemic grind with the Truckers, was executed with a polished, bombastic groove. The aching, acoustic-guitar-strummed “Cover Me Up” — which Isbell sang alone under two lone spotlights — built up slowly, brick-like, into a tidal wave of emotion and instrumentation from his gifted backing band, The 400 Unit.
Isbell might be cruising the country charts, but the performing arts center was filled with amps-cranked rock. Drummer Chad Gamble pounded like Dave Grohl. Keyboardist Derry DeBorja (ex-Son Volt) glided from honky-tonk chords to synth-pop waves. When Isbell traded hot, slippery licks with guitarist Sadler Vaden (ex-Drivin’ ’N’ Cryin’), their fretboard pyrotechnics threatened to scorch the pristine fabric of the Morrison Center seats.
But quiet times were mandatory; Isbell is one of Americana music’s elite storytellers. Particularly mid-show, his setlist — drawn primarily from his new album and 2013’s masterpiece “Southeastern” — demanded an acoustic guitar in his hands. “Elephant,” a lugubrious, detail-packed song about a woman’s cancer death, drew tears from a few and a standing ovation from many. Isbell’s slice-of-life tale “Speed Trap Town,” about escaping a troubled existence in a tiny community, was relatable even for big-city crowd members.
The audience whooped and hollered throughout the two-hour performance, even if most didn’t dare stand for more than a few seconds at a time. Isbell sensed the giddiness. When he shared a between-song anecdote about his first visit to Boise years ago, it seemed utterly genuine. Apparently, a smitten fan who looked just like Debbie Gibson pulled him into a women’s restroom.
“I’ll never forget that as long as I live,” Isbell said with a chuckle.
Watching this supremely gifted musician fire on all cylinders — songwriting, singing, guitar playing — you got the feeling the crowd felt the same way.
Veteran, Seattle-based indie opener Damien Jurado played up to fans, too. He kicked off his solo-acoustic set with two of his most evocative pieces of work: “Ohio” and, in particular, “Sheets,” a haunting image of a lovers’ triangle.
Jurado enjoyed himself between songs, ridiculing his clothes and seated posture. He also poked fun at the plaintive nature of his music. But he didn’t seem overly concerned about changing the sameness of that vibe during most of the 45-minute experience.