Jason Isbell and the 400 unit walked onto Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall stage as stealthily as they picked up their two Grammys (Best Americana album for “The Nashville Sound”) and best American roots song (“If We Were Vampires”) at the untelevised premiere ceremony prior to the live awards show the previous evening. They spent the following 100 minutes proving without a doubt why they were deserving of them. The feel of the show alternated between the amped up muscle shoals sound of Isbell’s native Alabama that was featured mainly in the covers of Drive By Truckers songs to the silky finesse of his own discography that his fiddle playing wife, Amanda Shires, layered in a symphonic atmosphere.

They opened with a one two punch of “Hope the High Water” and “24 Frames” with Isbell and Sadler Vaden trading scorching solos. The guitar duels would continue throughout the evening.

Isbell does not write many autobiographical songs, but one of the evening’s best numbers was the impactful “Cover Me Up.” It is about getting sober. Drinking was the reason he was asked to leave Drive By Truckers. He then performed ”White Man’s World” and “Cumberland Gap” in succession. The former confronts the struggle his two-year-old daughter will face later in life in Trump’s America while the latter depicts the decline of the coal industry. He credits them both for a songwriting hot streak while he was getting sober in 2012. The socio political commentary seemed to resonate with mainly white, middle aged male crowd.

Isbell’s crystal clear tenor feels like a combination of Amos Lee and Vince Gill. Its purity is sometimes at odds with more heavy handed material, but he is not afraid to throw in some Tom Waits grit when warranted, as he did on the cover of the Truckers “Decoration Day.”

      Never one to hog the spotlight, Isbell took a moment to congratulate the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on their Grammy and said it was a privilege to play in their hall.  He and Shires closed it out with the best American roots song,”If We Were Vampires.”

      Opener James McMcMurty is an extremely capable songwriter and was praised by Isbell who said, “I learned so much about songwriting listening to his songs. His slothful delivery may have been off-putting to some newbies but served numbers like “Childish Things” and “Ain’t Got a Place” well.


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