Given the media’s focus on his words and actions in recent months, Jason Isbell might be best known to some folks as the musician who isn’t playing around when it comes to COVID-19 safety protocols at his concerts and for interviewing Dr. Anthony Fauci about vaccinations and other pandemic-related precautions.
Over the course of many years, however, Isbell has built the core of his reputation — that of an acclaimed songwriter, an impressive guitarist and a recording artist with a deep catalog. His latest album, 2020’s Reunions, has bolstered his good standing, and the same goes for the performances on his current tour, which made a stop at The Met in Philadelphia on Sept. 15.
Backed by the durable and dynamic 400 Unit, Isbell began with “What’ve I Done to Help,” the first track on Reunions. In casual fashion, he shed his acoustic guitar about halfway through for an electric and subsequently played his first of many standout slide solos. Three songs later came a deftly executed version of Reunions’ “Dreamsicle,” told from a child’s perspective about the collateral damage he experiences due to his frayed family.
Equally as impressive in terms of execution and composition was the subsequent “Speed Trap Town,” another gentle and acoustic song. A Stonesy groove drove “Super 8,” airy and eerie backing vocals elevated “Only Children,” and ace guitarist Sadler Vaden’s Pete Townshend-esque windmills punctuated “Hope the High Road” (the lyric “Last year was a son of a bitch/For nearly everyone we know” in this 2017 tune still holds true today).
Isbell dropped a reference to his next album, the themed covers collection Georgia Blue (due Oct. 15), then he and the band went into a brisk, bright rendition of R.E.M.’s “Driver 8” (which concludes the 13-song effort). It would not be their only cover on this warm night: As part of a two-song encore, they did The Rolling Stones’ “Sway,” with Isbell taking the second solo, his guitar tone like that of Mick Taylor.
Isbell’s North American tour continues Sept. 17 with a show at the Harvest Music Festival in Canada, followed by concerts in Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Tennessee and elsewhere through mid-December, with more dates scheduled for late February and early March.