Jason Isbell and Josh Ritter

Isbell, Ritter perform with sincerity at Landmark Theatre

Review: Jason Isbell and Josh Ritter put on a heartfelt show at the Landmark Theatre Thursday night, treating fans to excellent musicianship and performing.

The word of the night at the Josh Ritter and Jason Isbell concert was “sincerity.”

Country music, coming from today’s “bro” artists, can come off as preachy and hollow. Either you’re being subjected to a three-minute long ode to a truck or the objectification of women disguised as a love song.

Photo: Rachel Kline

Not so with Ritter and Isbell. The two put on a heartfelt show at the Landmark Theatre Thursday night and treated fans to excellent musicianship and performing.

Ritter, an Idaho native who’s been touring with Isbell for most of his current tour, was met with some technical difficulties three songs into his set. The band’s speakers completely went out, and the Landmark audience was treated to an impromptu acoustic session of the next three songs.

A winning combination of the theater’s acoustics, Ritter’s (and his band’s) vocal talent, and his ability to improvise helped the unamplified songs come across as if they were supposed to be performed that way. Their harmonies, untainted by amplification, melded as easily as if the four of them were a barbershop quartet performing at small social event.

Though it was clear Ritter could have continued that way for the rest of his set, the problem was remedied soon and as they finished performing, the audience gave a well-deserved standing ovation. It was an effective, if unexpected, precursor to Isbell.

And Jason Isbell is a hard act to precede. The Alabama-born singer, through his rich vocals and masterful lyricism, transported the Syracuse crowd to Muscle Shoals, the birthplace of so much Southern country soul – and Isbell himself. His act, backed by his band The 400 Unit, was a simple one, relying on his nigh unmatchable guitar prowess and voice to communicate tales of alcoholism, pain and love.

Isbell, who has been sober since 2012, does not shy away from the darkness of his past when he writes, and certainly not when he performs. He let strangers in the audience into his life with songs like “Elephant,” which deals with a bar regular diagnosed with cancer; “Traveling Alone,” about the need for companionship while touring; and “Different Days,” an ode to recognizing the “you” you used to be.

This is the difference between Isbell and other artists peppering the popular country charts. It’s an authenticity that soars beyond bragging about overcoming hardship – he’s simply relaying stories in the only way he knows how. That way just happens to be through lyrics that are at times heartbreaking, at times joyous, and never smug or showy.

Isbell is also a truly hilarious guy. Maybe it’s that kind of humor that can be borne of pain, but the few times he recounted stories between songs, they were genuinely funny. He joked about how his 400 Unit guitarist Sadler Vaden let him sleep on the floor of his kitchen (after he was kicked out of the Drive-By Truckers due to his alcoholism) until Isbell had the idea to start his band.

“And I was like, ‘Do you want to be in a band?’” Isbell told the Landmark audience. “And he said, ‘Of course, man!’ And I was like, good. Because you’re in the band anyway, and it’s good that you know it. Otherwise you’re gonna miss practice.”

His sincerity and ability to take moments of hurt and pain and translate them into songs or jokes are rare qualities, and they are what take his music above and beyond simple Southern rock.

Isbell is one of the modern-day masters of music, and his show Thursday night was a clear exhibition of this. There are few artists alive that can match his talent. They’d do well to try, but – not like this Tuscaloosa native is biased or anything – maybe it’s just an Alabama thing.

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