Jason Isbell – Picking Up the Baton From the Fallen Tom Petty?

Jason Isbell started his musical journey early. Surrounded by a musical family near the Tennessee – Alabama state line, Isbell played at the Grand Ole Opry when he was 16. He eventually joined the acclaimed Drive-By Truckers, further honing his chops.

His subsequent solo career has been recognized with a growing pile of Grammy and other awards, as well as uniform critical acclaim.  As his summer tour enters its final third leg, he gave his San Diego fans a stellar sold out performance at the classy Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall. The occasion included a sing-along to celebrate his tutu-clad daughter’s second birthday. “You won’t get that at a Smashing Pumpkins’ concert,” Isbell acknowledged.

But before the houselights dimmed (after Aimee Mann’s stirring opening set), an eclectic playlist (including Prince’s “Raspberry Beret,” Beach Boys’ “Sail On Sailor” and The Clash’s “Magnificent Seven”) signaled an intriguing evening was in the making.

Isbell and his ace band the 400 Unit came out blazing, roaring through versions of “Anxiety,” “Hope the High Road” and “24 Frames.” The 400 Unit (named after a psychiatric ward at a Florida hospital, not a jail cell block as I assumed) is comprised of Derry deBorja (keyboards), Chad Gamble (drums), Jimbo Hart (bass), Sadler Vaden (guitar) and Amanda Shires (fiddle). Shires and Isbell were married in 2013 (by Todd Snider). A year earlier an intervention by Shires and Ryan Adams resulted in Isbell’s shift to sobriety. The onstage interplay between the married couple is poignant.

Isbell has a clutch of great solo albums, from which he builds his setlist. He also includes songs from his Drive-By Truckers days, such as “Never Gonna Change” and “Decoration Day.” More recent solo gems played live include the achingly sad “Elephant” about dealing with a dying friend and “Speed Trap Town,” an insightful look at the inertia of staying or hitting the road. He closed the show with the hauntingly beautiful “If We Were Vampires,” a delicate observation of the ultimately finite nature of love, no matter how strong.

As the evening evolved, I was gradually convinced that Isbell is ably filling in the very big shoes left by Tom Petty. The 400 Unit is as well oiled as were the Heartbreakers. Both bands were built on a swaggering dual guitar attack, but Isbell adds an emphasis on acoustic songs, making for a more varied and dynamic set list. Isbell’s voice is far less nasal than Petty’s, but both songwriters draw deep inspiration from their Southern roots.

Whether Isbell is the heir apparent to Petty makes for an interesting parlor game, but it should be noted that both Bruce Springsteen and John Prine have praised Isbell’s work. All four musicians have songbooks that have cut incisively into the psyche of the American experience. On his current tour, Isbell is proving it night after night.

(photos by Brad Auerbach)

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.