No one sitting in Berglund Performing Arts Theatre on Thursday night expected singer/songwriter Jason Isbell to free associate a floating blonde hair with a traveling Broadway show that featured “All In The Family” actress Sally Struthers. Isbell couldn’t necessarily have expected it either, but random elements were in place.
After finishing his song “Alabama Pines,” Isbell told the Berglund audience that he had watched a long, blonde hair descend from the ceiling as he performed it. As it fell, he remembered seeing a poster backstage, for “Hello Dolly.” The classic production, starring Struthers, had passed through town in 2013. Isbell was certain it was one of Struthers’ hairs, and asked if anyone in the crowd had seen the musical.
“You missed out,” Isbell said. “I wasn’t there, but I know you missed out, because her hair is in the damn ceiling.”
The audience laughter, coming after a number in which he sang that “nobody gives a damn about the things I give a damn about,” proved that the crowd was willing to go along with his goofball humor. The folks came for the music, though, and got plenty, with both musical and lyrical depth.
Most of the music came from his double Grammy Award-winning 2015 disc, “Something More Than Free,” and its predecessors, “Southeastern” and “Here We Rest.” Much of the 100-minute set was familiar territory for the act’s fans — this was its sixth time through the valleys since 2011. The show included three songs from an album due out in June — all of which received enthusiastic responses — and Isbell’s existing catalog continued to hold up well.
Start with the lyrics. “You thought God was an architect, now you know / He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow,” he sang in “24 Frames.” In “Something More Than Free” he’s a thinking man’s blue collar troubadour, singing that “Sunday morning I’m too tired to go to church, but I thank God for the work.” In the rocking standby “Super 8,” trouble follows “a couple rails” of cocaine, chasing “your own tail” and talking “about the bad old days.”
In Isbell’s songcraft, the musical moods match the lyrics. His longtime band has mastered both the subtleties and the gut punches. Isbell, as blistering on guitar as he is powerfully in-tune vocally, went lick for jamming lick with guitarist Sadler Vaden in show-closing “Never Gonna Change,” one of the welcome holdovers from Isbell’s days in Drive-by Truckers.
With new songs from upcoming record “The Nashville Sound,” Isbell has added more uptempo, biting rock to the repertoire. “Cumberland Gap” was the show’s second tune, with the several-years-sober Isbell taking a hard look at a hard drinker in a dead town where the coal is gone. “Hope the High Road” found him having “heard enough of the white man’s blues” and tired of singing about himself. A third original, with which he opened a three-song encore, was a more fragile number, considering mortality over finger-picked resonator guitar.
Attendance fell off a good bit from Isbell’s 2015 appearance in the room. “Something More Than Free” was a recent release then, and 1,564 came to the theater. The venue counted 836 in the building last night. We predict a big reception for “The Nashville Sound” and a bigger turnout next time.
Opening band J. Roddy Walston & The Business did its job well, trucking in loud rock ‘n’ roll, closing a hot set with a Led Zeppelin-adjacent original, “Heavy Bells.”