Isbell & Ritter create immersive Americana experience

Photo courtesy of Laura Wilson

Jason Isbell and Josh Ritter kept a packed house at the Fox Theatre engaged for over three hours on Sep. 24, treating the audience to classic American narratives, intense swings of emotion and a uniquely powerful concert experience.

Isbell, the recent recipient of the American Music Awards for album and song of the year, played an 18-song set accompanied by his band, the 400 Unit, and by his wife, Amanda Shires, who normally tours separately.

The group played before three fake stained glass windows on a stage enveloped in smoke. For “Decoration Day,” a hard-driving tribute to a (fictional) classic American family blood feud, the stage-lights turned a fiery red, obscuring the group in a smoky hellish haze, perfectly complementing Isbell’s anguished howls, Sadler Vaden’s stabbing guitar licks and the sinister sound of Amanda Shire’s fiddle.

Isbell, born in the Shoals of north Alabama, identifies strongly with his roots: the influence of the legendary studios in the area including Muscle Shoals Sound Studios and FAME Studios, where he worked in his early twenties. Isbell made himself known on “Goddamn Lonely Love,” “Palmetto Rose” and “Super 8.” These are songs that embody the “muscle shoals sound” and harken back to the classic Shoals recordings of the Rolling Stones and Bob Seger. During these songs, the audience could be forgiven for mistaking Isbell and the 400 Unit for Ronnie Van Zant and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

The most touching moments of the concert came during love songs such as “Cover Me Up” and “Flagship.” The former grew from an acoustic ballad between just Isbell and his wife into a pounding anthem to love as the rest of the 400 Unit joined in. “Flagship” is a slow serenade featuring only Isbell, Shires and the keyboardist Derry DeBorja on the accordion. On these songs, audience members feel like privileged guests looking in on the most intimate moments between Isbell and his wife. Isbell masterfully dispersed these slower songs throughout his set, granting the audience moving reprieves from the exhilaration of his other, more intense songs.

Perhaps the only disappointment of the night was that Josh Ritter, Isbell’s supporting act, could not play a longer set. Ritter, sporting a constant smile and exhibiting palpable humility in telling the audience, “We’re having a total ball,” played a forty five-minute set, delivering lyrical elegance packaged with rock-band energy. He brought the audience to its feet  for the jovial “Getting Ready to Get Down” and dark, tragic masterpiece “Henrietta, Indiana.”

On dark songs, Ritter’s passionate vocals were complemented by the deep thumping of an upright bass to bring the audience to terror and anguish, while on lighter pieces, his smile and detached lyrics evoked humor. Playing in front of a large, abstract mural of two jagged mounds, one on either side, Ritter looked as though he was being physically born of the earth, emphasizing the connection between his Americana music and the land which inspires it.

Ritter’s performance perfectly complemented Isbell’s; Ritter’s humble smile and Jack Kerouac-like lyrics evoke middle Americana, while Isbell’s hard-driving southern rock and Levon Helm-like vocals align with southern Americana, treating the audience to two different forms of the genre in one show. Even the venue was perfect; one cannot help being overwhelmed by nostalgia when entering the Fabulous Fox, an ideal atmosphere for inherently nostalgic Americana music.

Altogether, the night was not merely a great concert, it was an immersive exploration into the essence of Americana.