After strapping on his Flying-V guitar and tearing through “Go It Alone,” Jason Isbell looked at his band, the 400 Unit, then back at the audience and smiled.
“I think we opened up a show at The Earl with that song. We possibly opened a show at Smith’s Olde Bar with that song,” he said.
Yes, even though Isbell is Alabama born and a Nashville resident, his Georgia roots run deep thanks to his years with the Drive-By Truckers. He’s never lost his affinity for Atlanta, and especially, the Atlanta Braves.
That comfort level was obvious on Thursday night, as the laid-back musician and his five-piece outfit played the first of a two-night stand at the Fox Theatre.
Large signs in the lobby stated Isbell’s request to refrain from taking photo or video during the show, but of course there were plenty of those to whom the rules never apply.
Close to 4,000 people filled the venue (Friday’s show has a few seats available) and sang along worshipfully as Isbell plowed through the majority of his latest album, “The Nashville Sound,” which, along with the track “If We Were Vampires,” scored a couple of Grammy Awards last month.
Backstage at that ceremony, a humble Isbell talked about Gregg Allman, whose posthumous release his work defeated, and the influence of the Allman Brothers Band.
Even though Isbell’s music leans toward Americana and alt-country, there are shades of those storied Southern rockers in the buzzing slide guitar Isbell unleashed on “Hope the High Road” and the open-hearted declaration, “Something More Than Free.”
He generously introduced the band throughout the duration of the concert, and the contributions of Derry Deborja (keyboards, accordion), Chad Gamble (drums), Jimbo Hart (bass), Sadler Varden (guitar) and Amanda Shires (vocals, fiddle, wife of Isbell) cannot be overstated.
Shires, in particular, brought not only a visual pop in her sequined top and vibrant ankle boots – a contrast to the Man in Black attire surrounding her – but her harmony vocals, particularly on “Hope the High Road” and the melodically lustrous “Alabama Pines” are vital to the 400 Unit sound.
Isbell’s voice veers from country-tinged grit (“Codeine”) to unquestionably pretty (“24 Frames”) and he delivered material ranging from the bracing, incisive “White Man’s World” to the racing rocker “Cumberland Gap” with deeply felt emotion.
The band’s staging was simple, yet effective, with a glowing insignia of an anchor and bird hanging behind the musicians and a light show that sufficed more than any props.
As the reflective acoustic ballad “Last of My Kind” escalated into a full-throated musical statement, the lights swelled brighter with every guitar run and fiddle breakdown from Shires. Conversely, during the heartbreaking “Elephant,” Shires, Isbell and Deborja were shrouded in a fog of white lights, a fitting visual for the song.
Whether swinging through the accordion-laced dance groove of “Codeine” or turning more pensive on “Chaos and Clothes,” Isbell’s sincerity never wavered.
Opening the show was James McMurtry, the shaggy roots rocker who has maintained a steady career since the late-‘80s.
His 40-minute set included “Childish Things” and “Copper Canteen,” his vivid lyrics conveyed in a trademark direct, almost expressionless style.
McMurtry’s three-piece grizzled band offered sharp musicianship throughout, and McMurtry brought his own chiming guitar groove to “For All I Know” and “Ain’t Got a Place,” which shimmered with a veneer of New Orleans-styled soul.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit (with James McMurtry opening) play the Fox Theatre again at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 9. Tickets are $47.70 – $97.75.