As a songwriter, guitar player, and band leader, Jason Isbell is so talented, it's almost ridiculous. He's also one of the nicest, most humble guys in the business. And all of those qualities came into sharp focus last night at the third of four sold-out Ryman Auditorium shows. Isbell's poetry and playing are graceful and thoughtful -- no grimaces, no poses, no pretense. He just does what he does, in one of the most hallowed rooms in the country and surrounded by some of the best players in town -- Amanda Shires (fiddle), Derry DeBorja (keys), Chad Gamble (drums), Jimbo Hart (bass), and Sadler Vaden (guitar).
Because writing a review of the evening would never capture its magic, here are 12 of the most special moments of the performance:
- The fact that he played Something More Than Free from top-to-bottom for the first (and probably last) time ever, took a short break, and came back to play some more “rock 'n' roll songs.”
- The way Shires looked at him during “Flagship” when they hit the line “Baby, let's not ever get that way ...” and, then, the way Isbell looked at her when he got to “volunteer to lose touch with the world and focus on one solitary girl.”
- The fact that Isbell wore sneakers on Sunday night after trying boots on Friday and Saturday. He explained that the floor at center stage was awfully worn down and slippery: “If I gotta fall down, I wanna fall down because Hank Williams and Johnny Cash raised too much hell.” He chuckled, then added, “I've fallen down for much worse reasons than that.”
- The tremendous musical ending of “Children of Children,” from the echoing snare hit on out. (It's even more powerful live than on the record.)
- Every solo section after that -- “Decoration Day,” “Flying Over Water,” “Never Gonna Change,” “Danko / Manuel” -- particularly when Isbell, Vaden, and Shires swapped runs.
- “Cover Me Up.” (Good grief, what a perfect song.)
- The fact that Isbell's dad was in the audience to receive his dedication of “Outfit” and the crowd sang along right from the start.
- The sight of Isbell and Shires walking off stage with their arms around each other.
- “Elephant.” (See “Cover Me Up.”)
- The way Vaden stepped to the side of the stage to give Isbell all the psychic space he needed for his slide solo on “Danko / Manuel” before easing back in to add to the glory of it all.
- The playfulness of Shires and DeBorja during “Codeine” -- the two of them giggling and standing back-to-back to share a mic on the choruses; him showing off his accordion by stepping to the edge of the stage; and her staring deadpan at Isbell as she plucked her fiddle in response to the line, “If there's two things that I hate, it's having to cook and trying to date.”
- The fact that the show went a good 15 minutes past curfew and no one -- band included -- seemed ready for it to end.
- BONUS: The fact that Alynnda Segarra never once tuned her acoustic guitar during Hurray for the Riff Raff's opening set.