Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania is a long way from Jason Isbell’s beloved “Alabama Pines.” Yet his stop on Friday night at the F.M. Kirby Center, accompanied by his thundering backing band the 400 Unit and his wife Amanda Shires, who doubled as the opening act, didn’t feel anything like an outsider on foreign turf. Thanks to the power of the performances and an impressive array of stirring songs, the guy who just released Southeastern made this Northeast stage his temporary home.
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After a brief crowd-pleasing set by guitar whiz Mike Mizwinski from nearby Pittston, PA, Shires strolled out with her ukulele and performed a sampler of her solo material, including several songs from her just-released album Down Fell The Doves. With a combination of quirky stage presence, idiosyncratic lyrics, and sneakily powerful vocals, she stealthily won over the crowd.
There was nothing stealthy about Isbell’s entrance, as he and the 400 Unit, a six-piece consisting of two guitars, bass, keyboards, drums, and Shires’ fiddle, tore into a crunching version of “Go It Alone” from 2011’s Here We Rest. He stuck with guitar-laden crown pleasers early, including the anthemic one-two punch of “Decoration Day” and “Outfit,” a pair of songs Isbell wrote during his stint with the Drive By Truckers. If nothing else, Isbell’s shows are a reminder of just what that band lost upon his departure.
Isbell joked from the stage about how he wanted the crowd to feel good during the show despite the fact that some of the material he was about to play would be unremittingly sad. Yet even the most downbeat material, most of which was taken from this year’s stellar acoustic-laden album Southeastern, was delivered in such a way that it engaged the crowd.
In quieter numbers like “Different Days,” “Traveling Alone,” and “Cover Me Up,” darker corners of the human condition were contrasted by the gratitude that the songwriter feels for his newfound sobriety and domestic tranquility, making those songs oddly triumphant in concert. Indeed, what Southeastern has given to Isbell’s catalog is the perfect gear-change for his live shows.
Things got loud again in the show’s final leg, with moody masterpiece “Goddamn Lonely Love” giving way to the joyous Muscle Shoals tribute “Heart On A String” before “Alabama Pines” wistfully wrapped things up. The encore featured the rabble-rousing “Super 8” segueing directly into a cover of the Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” giving Isbell the chance to play guitar hero and his band the chance to clear the audience’s sinuses with a blast of classic rock euphoria. Don’t look now, but Jason Isbell is putting together a catalog that can hang with anybody else out there, turning every show he and the 400 Unit plays, no matter the location, into a cathartic Southeastern celebration.