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Review: Jason Isbell breathes life into masterful lyrics at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater

Opener Richard Thompson excelled, too.

Kendrick Lamar won a Pulitzer Prize on Monday, and a more deserving recipient you'd be hard-pressed to find. He's the best songwriter in America, and it was nice to see that reflected in a way the straw-spined Grammys never will.

But if you want to talk runners-up, you ought to start talking Jason Isbell.

The 2,100-plus rowdies who packed Ruth Eckerd Hall Tuesday night sure would. The 39-year-old Alabaman and his band the 400 Unit brought down the sold-out house by transporting fans from Muscle Shoals to Cumberland Gap, from a Super 8 Motel in Bristol, Tenn., to "Ybor City on a Friday night," one of many exquisitely specific lyrics that drew cheers.

Isbell's first local show in two years came in support of The Nashville Sound, his Grammy-winning sixth album, and yet another of his sharpest, touching on everything from resilience (Tupelo) to blue-collar blues (the knuckle-cracking Cumberland Gap) to racial disparity and privilege (White Man's Blues). It's everything modern country ought to be, and even sometimes wants to be — it was nominated for Album of the Year at last year's CMAs — but by and large is not.

But maybe that's too hard on Nashville. Few songwriters anywhere have Isbell's powerful sense of setting and storytelling. As his guitar crunched and growled and wailed, Isbell walked fans among church pews and into the mines, out back of the bar and through a maze of tombstones. If you weren't singing along, you were absorbing the yarns Isbell spun.

Every ticketholder could tally their own chill count – I got 'em during the vicious, careening Decoration Day and gut-wrenching Cover Me Up. By the end of the show – and not for the first time in my life – Isbell had me in tears, this time philosophizing on love and death on the devastating If We Were Vampires. The bastard. I never saw it coming.

While they've played with him for years, this was Isbell's first local show in a while where he's shared poster billing with the 400 Unit, who also received title credit on The Nashville Sound. They earned it, too: An accordion-pumping Derry deBorja doing a little do-si-do with Isbell on the rueful, zydeco-tinged Codeine; guitarist Sadler Vaden engaging in a fierce shred-off on the pec-flexing, pick-snapping Never Gonna Change.

If you think a one-man show like that of Isbell's opener, Richard Thompson, might be overwhelmed by a freight train like the 400 Unit, think again.

Richard Thompson performed at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on April 17, 2018. (Jay Cridlin | Times)
Richard Thompson performed at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on April 17, 2018. (Jay Cridlin | Times)

The legendary English guitarist, 69, was an enthralling solo presence, flicking and fingerpicking his acoustic guitar like a demon in a black denim vest. From the stirring, almost symphonic Persuasion to the wry, bitter Crocodile tears – pub punk filtered through a mist of Irish folk – he was forceful and commanding throughout a too-short set. He shouted out his old band Fairport Convention on Who Knows Where the Time Goes; as well as bluegrass great Del McCoury, who made a hit ("Can you have a bluegrass hit? Is that possible?") of his 1952 Vincent Black Lightning. For the fans who only came for Isbell, it was a compelling introduction to the breadth of his influential career.

And those fans were receptive, giving Thompson a much-deserved standing O at the end. Some stood all night, actually, cheering and hugging in their seats, and paying real attention to each lyrical nugget.

During the outsider's lament Last of My Kind, when Isbell sang about fans "clapping on the one and the three" – the stiff upbeat of a rock song, rather than the groovy downbeat – savvy fans who got exactly what he was saying spent a few bars clapping on, yes, the one and the three. Nice little nod, that.

"Am I the last of my kind?" Isbell mused in the chorus.

"No, sir!" shouted one dude in the audience.

Dude was right, in a way – there is one other songwriter in Isbell's league right now, a guy on the West Coast named Kendrick. For now, only one of them has a prize like the Pulitzer. But now that that door's been kicked down, let's start the campaign for the other.

— Jay Cridlin