Jason Isbell with Josh Ritter
Aug. 7, Centennial Concert Hall
★★★1/2 out of five stars
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This article was published 8/8/2019 (645 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
During an evening as intimate as a house concert, Jason Isbell showed his reputation as a gifted storyteller isn’t limited to his lyrics.
The Alabama-born singer-songwriter is funny, although you wouldn’t know it from the heavy topics explored in his music. He didn’t shy away from cracking a few jokes while he bantered candidly between songs at the Centennial Concert Hall on Wednesday night.
Isbell is a former member of the Southern-rock band the Drive-By Truckers, who rose to prominence when he broke out on his own in 2007. He has released six solo albums, and his most recent records, Something More Than Free and The Nashville Sound, each received a Grammy Award for best Americana album in 2016 and 2018, respectively.
While his sound could be described as Americana, alt-country or even indie rock, Isbell’s catchy anthems rely less on the bounds of genre than they do on the musician’s poetic sensibilities.
His contemplative, personal songwriting took centre stage on Wednesday with songs about relationships, alcoholism, sobriety, politics and perseverance.
Isbell played a wide-ranging hour and 45-minute set that included hits from his award-winning releases, such as Hope the High Road, as well as a throwback to his days with the Truckers and a version of Maybe It’s Time, a song he wrote for last year’s Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga remake of A Star is Born.
He wrapped up the evening post-encore with the crowd pleasing 24 Frames and If We Were Vampires.
The concert hall proved to be the right venue for Isbell’s scaled-back performance as a three piece. He usually tours with a full band, the 400 Unit, but was joined on stage only by his wife Amanda Shires on violin and Sadler Vaden on guitar.
The trio sounded good and didn’t need the added accompaniment or any fancy staging in the room.
Shires is a master of her instrument, but her stage presence was lacking and even awkward at times, which was unexpected from a member of the Highwomen, country music’s newest female supergroup featuring Shires, Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby.
The concert drew an eclectic crowd that listened intently and applauded enthusiastically after every song, there were no less than three standing ovations for the opener and the main act throughout the night.
American singer-songwriter Josh Ritter served as the opening act, marking his second performance of the day.
On Wednesday morning, Ritter stopped by the Health Sciences Centre to serenade and visit Daryl Hiebert and his wife Corrie Van Aertselaer. The Winnipeg couple are longtime fans, but were unable to attend the evening concert due to a setback in Hiebert’s ongoing battle with cancer.
Ritter stayed true to his opening promise to get in as many words as possible, taking just enough time in between songs for a breath and a heartfelt thank you to the crowd.
He did pause at one point during his 45-minute set to speak about his first visit to Winnipeg, an event he still thinks about to this day thanks to a wardrobe malfunction of the pant-splitting variety that occurred right before he went on stage.
Like Isbell, Ritter also let’s his songwriting speak for itself. On Wednesday, he closed his eyes, settled himself in front of the mic with guitar in hand and let his profound lyrics fill the hall.
He started things off with Thunderbolt's Goodnight and played a few songs from his 2019 album Fever Breaks, his 10th studio album, which was produced by Isbell and featured the 400 Unit as his backing band.
The musicians parted ways after their Winnipeg show, with Isbell headed to the Edmonton Folk Festival and Ritter off to Vancouver for a solo show.
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.