He released the most widely acclaimed Americana/alt-twang album of the 2010s, and he played in the most cult-loved Southern rock band of the past two decades. For what might’ve been cunning or just cocky reasons, however, Jason Isbell did not offer a song from either of those projects until near the end of his concert Friday night at the Palace Theatre in St. Paul.
Instead of resting on his laurels, the hickory-voiced Alabama singer/songwriter and former Drive-by Truckers member pushed his sold-out audience for the first three-quarters of the 105-minute concert. And it worked like a Southern charm.
Isbell spent the first hour of the show making a very convincing case for the rich songwriting on his two most recent albums, including the month-old “Nashville Sound.” All but one of the songs in the first half came from those records, starting with two of the heaviest new numbers, “Anxiety” and “Hope the High Road.”
“I’ve heard enough of the white man’s blues,” Isbell sang in the latter tune, possibly a political line or just a self-effacing jab at his own prior work. “I sang enough about myself,” he added.
As the roaring energy and fiery guitar work in those opening songs indicated, Isbell also seemed to make it a mission on Friday to show off his road-tested band, the 400 Unit, mostly players who’ve been with him since his blurry days of playing the Turf Club in the late-’00s.
The frontman looked back on that era fondly midway through the show, right after guitarist Sadler Vaden and violinist/singer Amanda Shires — a gifted singer/songwriter in her own right and also Isbell’s wife — offered some lush instrumental interplay in the new John Prine-flavored gem “Last of My Kind.”
“I just love this town,” Isbell said, singling out the Turf as “one of the first places that treated us like a real rock band.”
“Last of My Kind” was one of the few songs in the set that sided on mellower acoustic arrangements. For the most part, Isbell & Co. cranked it up to 11 on Friday. The Palace — still a relatively untested venue since it reopened in April — rose to the occasion, sounding as pristine and polished as the band.
Not only were the Palace’s acoustics an asset, so was the venue’s seat-less open floor, which gave the concert a rowdier, more rugged flavor than Isbell’s last gig in town at Northrop auditorium. That livelier aesthetic perfectly suited the set list as it picked up even more steam with the intense new tune “Cumberland Gap.”
Perhaps to reward the 2,800 fans for sticking with him through all the new material, Isbell then lined up “Flying Over Water,” “Stockholm” and “Cover Me Up” all in a row, each from the album fans know best, 2013’s triumphant “Southeastern.” His sobriety proclamation in “Cover Me Up” (“I swore off that stuff forever this time”) earned a loud cheer, but an even sweeter moment came when he looked straight at Shires as he sang, “Home was a dream / One that I’d never seen / Until you came along.”
After that came the show’s lone Truckers tune, “Never Gonna Change,” prompting a Neil Young & Crazy Horse-style guitar marathon that would soon be rivaled in the encore by another lengthy workout through the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post.” Neither of those brawny, bruising jams did much to further Isbell’s reputation as one of today’s greatest songwriters, but I think we understood that already anyway.
Here’s the set list from Saturday’s concert:
Hope the High Road
Something More Than Free
The Life You Chose
Last of My Kind
Chaos and Clothes
Flying Over Water
Cover Me Up
If It Takes a Lifetime
Never Gonna Change
If We Were Vampires
Whipping Post (Allman Brothers cover)
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658