Review: Jason Isbell, Josh Ritter showcase stellar songwriting at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater
You don’t have to look hard to spot Bob Dylan’s influence on Jason Isbell – Dylan’s lyrics to Boots of Spanish Leather are tattooed on Isbell’s left forearm.
But the connection between them runs deeper than Isbell’s skin.
This was absolutely clear Wednesday at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, where 1,600 fans got a master class in songwriting courtesy of Isbell, the latest and greatest New Dylan on the block.
The Alabama native wrung whoops of approval, appreciative ovations and likely a few tears from the Clearwater faithful as his words boomed through the auditorium, bouncing off the concrete walls and humming up from the audience between them.
Isbell’s got just as much Earle and Prine in him as Dylan. And like those rough-and-tumble bards, his songs are set in worlds of such rich, specific and painful detail that each felt more a short story – particularly when Isbell howls them out in his deep, rusty drawl.
Judging from the murmurs and shout-outs, it sounded like everyone in the audience had at least one they wanted to hear from his catalog, especially from his acclaimed Southeastern (2013) and Grammy-winning Something More than Free (2015). There were familiar, crowd-pleasing rockers like the Grammy-winning 24 Frames and working-man’s anthem Something More Than Free. There were brighter songs like the Cajun accordion-tinged Codeine, which, much to Isbell’s surprise, had people dancing in their seats.
And then there were songs that captured Isbell’s cutting lyricism and sense of place and personality. Elephant and Cover Me Up were wrenching tales of relationships rocked by cancer and addiction, respectively. Just as crushing were fan favorites like Decoration Day, a roar of Southern thunder about feuding families; and Speed Trap Town, a heartbreaking ballad so immaculately crafted it sounds like it wasn’t actually written, but spoken directly onto the page.
Isbell even managed to infuse a little poetry into the clichéd conceit of the road-weary rocker on Traveling Alone (“I know every town worth passing through / but what good does knowing do / with no one to show it to?”). Didn’t hurt that Traveling Alone also happens to be a local favorite, as it name-checks “Ybor City on a Friday night” – a line that received a big cheer.
“A little local flavor to that one,” Isbell said. “It’s a sing-able place, you know? It rolls right off the tongue. It rolls right off a lot of things. It rolls right off the sidewalk.”
Opening the show (and later joining Isbell for a cover of Prine’s Storm Windows) was Josh Ritter, who’s been compared to Dylan so often it might as well be a permanent part of his bio. Hair tousled and grinning from dimple to dimple, the days-shy-of-40 Idahoan brought a taste of Bakersfield to the night with rollicking numbers about outlaws (the graveyard-bluesy Henrietta, Indiana), desperate lovers (Long Shadows) and searchers and wanderers (When Will I Be Changed).
Ritter had his share of truths to tell and characters to sketch in his richly painted lyrics. But it was his backing three-piece Royal City Band that truly kept the set scooting and shuffling, channeling Johnny Cash and Buddy Holly on a new song (dubbed Feels Like Lightning on the setlist) and tacking a gospel-revival breakdown to the end of Oh Lord. On When Will I Be Changed, guitarist Mark Erelli delivered a soft, sparse slide solo as delicate and precise as a thread through the eye of a needle.
Isbell’s a pretty good guitarist, too, and he’s got a mean sideman in his band the 400 Unit's Sadler Vaden. And they traded torching solos toward the end of Isbell’s set, on Super 8 and the roaring, room-rocking, Tom Pettyish Never Gonna Change.
“There ain’t much difference in the man I wanna be, and the man I really am,” Isbell sang with a snarl as the 400 Unit erupted behind him.
He's singing like he means it. More than any other New Dylan on the scene, Isbell’s at the top of his game right now. A couple more albums, and you might start seeing his lyrics on forearms across America.
-- Jay Cridlin