by The Spin
Being wayward but devoted students of the way pop music’s endless boogie expresses the spirit of our time, The Spin thinks it's fun to try to trap that elusive old zeitgeist in a jar for a second, so we can see the little ghost squirm a little. Here in the Athens of the South, the endless boogie has quite a history. Adding rock guitars and country fiddles to boogaloo rhythms and songs about the glories of the rebel flag, old-school boogie was a lot of things thrown together, and this combination gave us such '70s titans as Wet Willie, Charlie Daniels and The Atlanta Rhythm Section. Today, the boogie has been refracted through the lens of history, and it comes out sounding something like what Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit did Saturday night at the Ryman. The Spin must emphasize that Isbell's exemplary music is more than boogie — part of that refraction we just mentioned has to do with post-punk principles, singer-songwriterdom and the changing face of the South itself. With Nashville singer-songwriter Caitlin Rose providing the anti-boogie that threw Isbell's achievement into relief, it was a fascinating night of Southern pop music.
Beers in hands — The Spin could feel the hell-raising, alcohol-swilling spirit of the boogie in the Ryman as we stumbled into our pew — we settled in to watch Rose. Specializing in languid but sometimes slightly Beatle-esque country-rock songs and arrangements, Rose ably furthers the '70s-specific, tongue-in-cheek, pop-country tradition of Brinsley Schwarz, Maria Muldaur, Michael Nesmith and former Brinsley member Nick Lowe himself.
Rose's crack sextet backs her ably, with Spencer Cullum Jr.'s pedal steel particularly apposite. Singing in a slightly laid-back style of neo-torch ‘70s pop-country, Rose performed songs from her records — the The Stand-In track “Pink Champagne” sounded great, while her cover of Nashville band The Deep Vibration's “I Was Cruel” proved she has a way with country-rock. She also pulled off a superb version of Paul Anka's “It Doesn't Matter Anymore,” which has been done by such boogie masters as Buddy Holly and Linda Ronstadt.
The band played their slightly bent pop perfectly, and The Spin liked it when they locked into a Stiff Records-meets-The Beatles groove on a couple of tunes. Rose is getting better as a singer, though there were moments when The Spin wished for a bit more variation in her approach and her phrasing. For example, the story Rose told about Jingles, the clown who entertained at parties she attended with her parents when she was growing up, was more effective than the actual performance of her song about that unforgettable party clown — strangely enough, Rose's even-tempered phrasing didn't provide any clues to what her attitude may have been about the song itself.
If Rose is something of a formalist who could stand to buy a pair of boogie shoes, Isbell uses various modes to express himself with his workmanlike singing — his voice may lack the beauty of Rose's, but he definitely knows how to express himself. The Spin thinks it never hurts to have something to say, even in pop music, and Isbell illustrates this principle perfectly. Like many post-punk, Americana singer-songwriters who have a feel for the dynamics of electric guitars and band interaction, Isbell likes to disguise his insights in music that never calls attention to itself. Isbell boogies, but he never loses control.
Beginning nearly every song with a chord sequence or lick on electric or acoustic guitar, Isbell proved himself a superb frontman. The Spin respects anyone with such solid musical skills who never makes himself obtrusive. When Isbell delivers a lyric, you hear it, and you feel it. When he essays a guitar solo, you sense that he's a disciplined player who thinks in terms of the total performance.
Isbell sings about Southern identity and its discontents — with his parents in attendance, the Alabama native and former Drive-By Trucker made his 2003 song “Outfit” sound like a Southern anthem, minus the optimism of such '70s Southern rockers as Charlie Daniels. And while Isbell adds terse riffs and slightly off-kilter rhythms to his sturdy, straight-ahead melodies and chord changes, he also references one source of that eternal boogie when he kicks his band into shuffling 4/4 and gospel-soul-derived 6/8 grooves. He covered the obscure Muscle Shoals-recorded Candi Staton B-side “Heart on a String,” which was co-written by famed soul tunesmith George Jackson.
The two-hour set was a master class in dynamics, pacing and formal savvy — Isbell's vocabulary includes power chords and two-step country-rock rhythms. With his wife Amanda Shires providing subtle accompaniment on violin, Isbell made boogie music that questioned itself at every turn. Remarkably, his audience seemed to welcome Isbell's skeptical but never irreverent comments on the complexities of Southern identity — they whooped and hollered, sang along and sat rapt as Isbell waxed soulful on such tunes as “Alabama Pines” and “Danko/Manuel.”
What The Spin finds inspirational about Isbell is his ability to communicate with his audience without compromising his songwriting or his musical ideas. Isbell is never flashy — he seems to understand that his meditations on the post-recession South, and his songs about his own struggles with identity, hit a nerve with an audience struggling with many of the same issues. As befits a singer who examines the limits of traditionalism within Southern culture, he offers his audience a way to push against those limits without losing sight of what makes their culture unique.
He wrapped things up with a cover of The Rolling Stones' 1971 “Can't You Hear Me Knockin',” a song that summed up post-boogie malaise as it existed 40 years ago, when the Muscle Shoals rock and soul scene Isbell references in his music was at its height. “Can't You Hear Me Knockin'” rocked, and Isbell looked happy to acknowledge the inexorable pull of those old, familiar, self-destructive zones.