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Isbell rides high

House of Blues, Boston, February 27, 2016

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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Jason Isbell was riding high as the final bows were being taken after a most sturdy evening in a long-ago sold-out show.

As well he should have given a career seemingly ever on the rise. The most recent evidence of that - besides this show - was his snagging of two Grammys last week for Best Americana Album for "Something More Than Free" and Roots Song for "24 Frames."

But Isbell did not let a few well-deserved pieces of hardware go to his head either. This was a well-structured and conceived show that had a lot of parts that went into the final mix. That meant everything from Isbell's slightly sandpapery vocals (the vocals were almost always mixed very high) to backing vocals from his wife and fiddle player Amanda Isbell to guitar solos never done to excess to country ("If It Takes a Lifetime"), rock and roots sounds.

The diversity played to the strengths of Isbell and his backing and, the 400 Unit.

That would start with the songs themselves, which ranged from softer, ear friendly (although they should not be mistaken for lightweight pop songs at all) numbers to going back in time on songs that rocked more.

Isbell reached back to his Drive-By Truckers' days for "Never Gonna Change" and the seven-plus minute "Decoration Day," one of several songs he played out. Isbell certainly was never content to rush the songs along, but, instead, gave them a lot of room to breathe and develop.

It also helped that he did the same with his band. Isbell may be the main guy, alternating between electric and acoustic guitars, but that didn't mean he gave short shrift to Sadler Vaden, who had several guitar solos. At one point, Isbell and Vaden faced off with Vaden repeating Isbell's guitar lines. Isbell certainly had his own chances as well, particularly playing away on slide guitar during "Children of Children," which closed out the regular set.

Amanda Isbell's fiddle was a welcome sound as was her background singing. Her presence enabled Isbell to sing "Cover Me Up," which he wrote for his then girlfriend. He said he only sings the song when she is onstage, something that doesn't always happen since she has her own musical career.

Keyboardist Derry DeBorja also played a key role, sometimes underpinning a song or playing an even more prominent role.

Isbell had the musical smarts to put some thought into his set list - alternating tempos and styles - to ensure excellent pacing and a concert that would reach several highs and ending with mid-tempo "Codeine."

Isbell has a lot to be thankful for these days, and he took nothing for granted live.

Isbell had something in common the opening act - Shovels & Rope. Both include husbands and wives. In the case of the very fine Shovels & Rope, there was no one else to lean on. Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst alternated on instruments - playing drums/keyboards or guitar.

They created quite a sound for only two people with a density to their music. Playing drums and keyboards at the same time certainly helped. While they often sang together, Hearst probably was the stronger of the two, particularly letting loose on "O' Be Joyful."

Curiously, they did not play one song from their fall covers disc, "Busted Jukebox Vol. 1" among the 11 songs.

No matter though, because Shovels & Rope, who are headline worthy, made for an excellent opening set.