After raising the bar for Southern country rockers and Nashville-based songwriters over the past two decades, Jason Isbell has also now heightened expectations for getting your name on the wall of Minnesota's most famous music venue.
The Grammy-winning Americana music star and his long-entrenched band the 400 Unit took the stage at First Avenue on Saturday a few hours after a star with their name on it was unveiled on the Minneapolis rock hall's iconic wall of fame.
Isbell and the band didn't have to play the gig to get the star, but they did. Likewise, they could have turned in a looser, wilder, saucier performance upon returning to the rock club amid a tour of grander theaters and amphitheaters. But they didn't.
Instead, they delivered one of their most refined sets yet in the Twin Cities, one far more tender and soulful than it was raucous, though with "Super 8" and "24 Frames" on the setlist, it certainly did rock hard at times.
Many of the high points of the two-hour performance — announced with less than three weeks' notice and sold out in minutes — made First Ave feel like an intimate, ornate theater more than a rugged, old punk-rock bar.
It takes a lot of power to turn that room into a quiet, captivated place when it's packed. This happened several times Saturday starting with a mid-show pairing of "The Last of My Kind" and "Traveling Alone." The former showcased Isbell's knack for writing empathetically about troubled characters. The latter demonstrated his talent for exposing his own woes.
"Traveling Alone" was also one of a handful of tracks plucked off Isbell's breakthrough 2013 record "Southeastern" — the one that raised his star value to bigger venues than First Avenue.
"Traveling Alone" and another "Southeastern" song, "Cover Me Up" — also a pin-drop moment in the show — both served as reminders of Isbell's triumphant battle for sobriety, which played out during his decade-plus of regularly gigging at First Ave, going back to his mid-2000s tours of duty in the Drive-By Truckers.
"I've been told I played here with the Drive-By Truckers," Isbell quipped Saturday, poking fun at his own fogginess on the matter.
He picked out the two Truckers songs that first made his songwriting talent clear, "Outfit" and "Decoration Day." He also wheeled out tunes that glaringly spotlighted his growth as a songwriter since going straight, starting with the show-opener "It Gets Easier," a moving ode to self-care. "If We Were Vampires" and "Elephants" also enraptured the crowd to standstill status late in the set.
Throughout, Isbell dropped in memories of prior First Avenue stops, such as his first show there with the 400 Unit opening for Son Volt in 2007.
He also nodded to two southern bands who came to the club long before them, covering R.E.M.'s "Driver 8" and Drivin' N Cryin's "Honeysuckle Blue." The latter was sung by guitarist Sadler Vaden — who, like Isbell in the Truckers and Isbell's wife and part-time 400 Unit member Amanda Shires, might be prime to go his own soon. (Shires is touring behind her own new album and thus did not make this gig.)
"I love this place, and I love you all for following us on our journey," Isbell summarized near show's end.
Let's hope this sets a precedent for other famous First Avenue alumni: If you want a star on the building, all you have to do is come back and pour your heart into the place one more time.