Jason Isbell Cranks Out Guitar Rock in Generous Hartford Set

Photo by Erika Goldring

Jason Isbell has amassed a deep enough catalog that he can play a full set of his best songs and still not get to all of them. It’s an enviable position to be in: give the audience plenty while leaving them wanting more, which is the way things went Saturday night when Isbell played Arch Street Tavern in Hartford. The Alabama-born singer and songwriter put on a masterful display of musicianship with his band, the 400 Unit, as they roamed through his solo catalog and through a selection of songs he wrote while he was a member of the Drive-By Truckers — tunes that are still high points of the band’s output during Isbell’s tenure.

He’s not a flashy presence on stage, but he’s a sturdy one: he sings with obvious passion in a ringing tenor edged with a hint of grit, and switches effortlessly between growling guitar riffs and expansive lead lines. He’s shown an affinity for military veterans in his songs: He opened in Hartford with “Tour of Duty,” a song from the point of view of a veteran relieved to be coming home. Later, he sang “Dress Blues,” a wrenching song counting the cost of freedom that included a mournful, bluesy solo. A different kind of tragedy was the focus of the murderous family feud song “Decoration Day,” where Isbell played subtle slide guitar licks before the band brought it home with the hypnotic riff that closes the song. Keyboardist Derry deBorja helped flesh out a funky Memphis groove on “Heart on a String,” and drummer Chad Gamble handled lead vocals on a zydeco-flavored cover of the Meters’ “Hey Pocky Way.”

Isbell demonstrated the breadth of his rock knowledge throughout the set, drifting into a guitar riff from Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” on “Try” (a song he cracked later is described as “bong rock”) and interpolating “Never Gonna Change” with a passage from the Jimi Hendrix song “Stone Free.” Later, after the Truckers favorites “Outfit” and “Danko/Manuel” (itself a display of rock knowledge), he closed the show with a searing version of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane.”

Minneapolis band Communist Daughter opened with a set of vivid songs from their 2011 debut, “Soundtrack to the End,” and this year’s EP “Lions & Lambs.” Johnny Solomon and Molly Moore hit chill-raising vocal harmonies on “Speed of Sound,” and captured the chill of snowy winter drives with the heater blasting on “Northern Lights.”

— Eric R. Danton

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