Jason Isbell steps into the divide at the Palace Theatre

Following a COVID-related postponement, the Nashville musician overcame food poisoning to deliver a big-hearted concert in his return to Columbus

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

It’s a fraught time in America, with deep, long-developed social and political divisions further straining under the weight of the coronavirus, which continues to wreak havoc on everything from the U.S. healthcare system to the live music industry.

Musician Jason Isbell experienced this firsthand when he contracted a breakthrough case of COVID-19 earlier this month, which caused him to cancel or postpone a handful of shows, including a Columbus stop that was delayed nearly two weeks while he recovered on a tour bus parked in the driveway of his Nashville home. 

Isbell showed no ill effects from his downtime when he finally turned up at the Palace Theatre on Thursday, even though the musician later said that he performed after spending the bulk of the day curled up in a ball and fighting off a wicked case of food poisoning.

Supported by his muscular, agile backing band the 400 Unit, which included his wife, Amanda Shires, on fiddle, Isbell navigated a two-hour concert that frequently traversed these fault lines while simultaneously tracing his growth as a husband, father and voice of moral authority in the present-day South.

“Hope the High Road” set an early tone, with Isbell expressing a desire to shift away from navel-gazing (“I’ve heard enough of the white man’s blues/I sang enough about myself”) and adopting a more outward stance. “Last year was a son of a bitch/For nearly everyone we know,” he sang, an evergreen line that rang as true on this night as it did when the song first surfaced in 2017.

In concert, Isbell drew heavily from his seventh album, Reunions, from 2020, delivering plain-spoken, elegantly penned tunes about his continued sobriety (“It Gets Easier”), fatherhood (“Letting You Go,” a big-hearted tearjerker written for daughter Mercy and performed here alongside Shires) and the importance of not settling for individual comfort in a world on fire (“What’ve I Done to Help”). 

While the personal often mingled with the political in Isbell’s songs, there were a handful of turns where the Nashville-by-way-of-North Alabama singer aimed squarely for the heart. Played back-to-back, “If We Were Vampires” and “Stockholm" served as romantic bookends, of sorts, with the latter capturing the swooning first blush of love and the former introducing the weight of mortality, Isbell positing that it’s quite possible the knowledge of death grants our relationships life. “Maybe time running out is a gift,” Isbell sang, at turns standing face-to-face with Shires, which added to the devastation of the moment. In terms of working out the tear ducts, only a tender "Elephant" topped the scene, Isbell gracefully, unflinchingly relaying the slow decline of a bawdy, unsentimental woman as she died of cancer.

Not all of Isbell’s narrators were quite so enlightened. On a muscular, riff-driven “Super 8,” the musician sang from the perspective of a rabble-rouser who barely survives a night in a low rent motel, awakening with dried blood in his ear and barely enough time to crawl to the toilet to empty his guts. “Decoration Day,” which Isbell wrote and recorded with his previous band, the Drive-By Truckers, managed to pack generations of resentment, bloodshed and stubborn pride into five swaggering minutes. Then there was “Alabama Pines,” a deceptively pretty song about a broken man steadily fading into oblivion.

Over the course of the evening, Isbell and Co. also performed a handful of tunes off of Georgia Blue, a covers album the musician assembled in the wake of Georgia electing two Democratic senators in 2020. These included: a warm, inviting take on R.E.M.’s “Nightswimming," less idiosyncratic here than on record and driven by Isbell's gentle acoustic strumming; a steely, Shires-led version of Cat Power’s “Cross Bones Style" laced with hypnotic fiddle; and a breezy springtime stroll through Precious Bryant’s “The Truth,” which featured a vocal assist from opener Adia Victoria.

Victoria kicked off the evening with a 45-minute set rich in deeply atmospheric tunes that borrowed from folk, rock and the blues, effortlessly transporting listeners from these frozen confines to the musician’s humid, kudzu-draped Southern home. (Victoria was born and raised in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and now resides in Nashville.) 

Thematically, Victoria returned time and again to the region — “[The South’s] landscape is a scene of self-encounter,” she explained in introducing one song — most explicitly on the gently enveloping “Magnolia Blues,” which opened in a setting much like the one she found herself in on this night (“I followed you into the blue and north into the cold”) before venturing back below the Mason-Dixon. 

Backed by a three-piece band that generally favored atmosphere over muscle, Victoria’s songs played like a haunted twist on the blues, a genre she discovered at age 22 and which she said awakened something deep within her. “I was able to expand in the blues, and I was able to release a breath I didn’t realize I had been holding,” Victoria said in an early January interview with Alive.

It's a feeling of release that carried into songs such as the dark, swampy “Troubled Mind” and the low-boiling “Mean Hearted Woman,” which Victoria said she penned as a response to the “evil” women who so often populate blues traditionals, the song envisioning the narrator's breakdown as the inevitable result of her mistreatment at the hands of men.

While Victoria’s fondness for her home was evident, she refrained from presenting an overly simplistic, rose-hued portrait of the region, exploring its faults with clear eyes on songs such as “Whole World Knows,” where a father preaches the Sunday sermon while his daughter shoots up outside the chapel, and “South Gotta Change,” an energized number written as a call to action following the 2020 death of congressman John Lewis. With artists like Victoria and Isbell leading the charge, perhaps there’s hope not only for the South, but for the rest of us, as well.