t would be hard to imagine a more unlikely bill. The combination of Jason Isbell and Richard Thompson sharing the same stage might seem implausible to fans of either man. Nevertheless, the commonality found in their skills as songwriters made it all work, and though some might have some reservations about having a 50-year veteran like Thompson playing a 45-minute opening set for a comparative newcomer akin to Isbell and his band the 400 Unit, at very least it exposed the former Fairport Convention mainstay to an audience that might have otherwise been unaware.
Clearly the crowd was there to see Isbell, and the recognition that greeted his hour and half-long set - much of it drawn from his remarkable recent album "The Nashville Sound" - was both rowdy and relentless. Isbell showed off his skill on lead guitar, but it was his sheer presence alone - an image that suggested a cross between Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle - that had the most riveting effect. A journeyman musician of the working class variety, his songs evoke both persistence and pathos, and when the band went full throttle on songs such as "Anxiety," "Hope the High Road," "Last of My Kind" and "Something More," they did so with a ferocity that was absolutely anthemic in proportion.
That said, Isbell kept his comments to a minimum, thanking the crowd for coming, introducing the band and noting his admiration for his surroundings - no surprise considering the historic theater's regal environs.
Mostly, he dug into the melodies, extracting every bit of energy and intensity he could ply from his delivery. By the time the band reached the second offering of the two-song encore, he was content to simply ply some emotion. The tender and touching "If We Were Vampires," a song about the fleeting time span of lifelong romance, ended the set on a thoughtful note, a compelling contrast to the intensity exuded earlier.
Thompson, armed with only his guitar, was far more communicative with the audience, albeit in a self-mocking manner. "Some say that my music is almost devoid of emotion," he joked. "Can you believe that? It may be depressing, but it varies from slow depressing to medium depressing. Now here's some fast depressing," and with that he launched into an uptempo take on "Valerie."
Introducing his classic "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," he credited Del McCoury for turning the song into a hit on the bluegrass charts, while also noting that though he originally referenced the rolling hills of England in the lyric, the imagery could just as well have referred to East Tennessee.
"I'm quite old, at least compared to you frisky young people." he wryly remarked, before catching a glimpse of the mostly middle-aged crowd and causing him to correct himself. "Oh I take that back," he joked. Nevertheless, a touching take on "Who Knows Where the Time Goes," written by and dedicated to Fairport Convention co-founder Sandy Denny brought some sobriety to the proceedings, before being upended by the rousing "Feel So Good," one of the most rollicking tunes in the Thompson repertoire.
Lee Zimmerman is a freelance writer based in Maryville, Tenn. He also expounds on music on his web site, Stories Beyond the Music - Americana Music Reviews, Interviews & Articles.