Review: Jason Isbell is back at 100% for Charlotte show. But should it have happened?

·8 min read

All day on Friday, weather forecasters were trying to get a bead on how much snow would be falling across the Charlotte region. And while none of them could agree on an inch count, they all seemed to agree with this: The roads were going to be a hot mess after it got dark.

Or, rather, a very, very cold one.

So I have to admit I was surprised that, in the hours leading up to Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit’s concert at Ovens Auditorium on Friday night, no one involved — not the tour, not the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, which owns Ovens — ever hinted at the weather potentially having some sort of impact.

After all, we’re in the Carolinas. People in the Carolinas call off school, board up their homes and double-check their last wills and testaments at the mere mention of the words “black ice.”

But, nope. Despite the fact that flurries started falling more than an hour before the concert even started, and despite the fact that the white stuff was clearly sticking to cars and roads, Isbell and his opener Adia Victoria didn’t flinch.

Victoria took the stage promptly at 8 o’clock, the time stamped on the tickets. Dressed in a long-sleeved, calf-length black dress and ruby-red heeled boots, she launched into a 47-minute set that leaned heavily on her 2021 album “A Southern Gothic” (seven out of the nine songs were from it) and showcased haunting, expressive lyrics torn from the pages of her life as a Black woman from the South; her smoky-sweet voice; and — perhaps most notably — her ability to win over a crowd with her Southern charm.

For example, after opening with the bluesy, rhythmically swaying “Far From Dixie,” she said: “I’m gonna say it feels really good for this Carolina girl to be back home. Even though it’s South Carolina.” (She grew up in Spartanburg.)

Then, to set up “Carolina Bound,” which she wrote during the pandemic while — well, we’ll let her explain: “For the past couple of years I’ve been working at an Amazon warehouse in Nashville just trying to live for the day that I could come back and do this with my boys. And one day ... I was pushing that cart and I was thinking, What am I doing here? I wanna go home.

And, six songs in, she put her finger on the pulse: “I heard it’s supposed to snow? Is that a dirty rumor? Do we need to go to Harris Teeter and get some milk and eggs? We’re staying at a nice little AirBnB, I could eat milk and eggs for days.”

My only criticism of Victoria’s performance (and it’s probably more of a criticism of the sound mix) is that sometimes, because her style is to sing softly and breathily, it’s difficult to make out her lyrics. Which is too bad, because her lyrics are worth listening to — especially on a song like “South Gotta Change,” the urgent call to action that she closed her set with.

Only about a quarter to a third of Ovens’ 2,400 seats were filled for Victoria. I mean, the place looked empty.

At first I thought maybe the weather had scared them off. After the lights came up for the break, I retreated to the lobby and looked out the windows to see the snow still coming down.

I worried what getting home might look like, since I had a nearly 20-mile drive waiting for me after the concert. So I went back into the auditorium pretty quickly, thinking that maybe Isbell would start his set earlier than usual and as a result end earlier than usual, since driving conditions were getting dicier by the minute.

But even though the stage looked like it was all set up for him by a couple of ticks past 9, Isbell didn’t take the stage until 9:17.

Fortunately — also: not surprisingly — the four-time Grammy Award winner was worth the wait. And it was clear by this point that fans hadn’t taken a snow day; though it wasn’t a full house, two-thirds to three-quarters of it was full when he kicked his part of the night off with a full-hearted rendition of “Overseas,” from 2020 album “Reunions.”

As it turned out, Charlotte was actually a little bit lucky to have him at all, given the fact that earlier this month he was forced to cancel two shows in Asheville and to postpone concerts in Wilmington; in Columbus, Ohio; and in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

“I have been sitting on the bus in my driveway for the last week, with COVID,” Isbell said after finishing the first song. “But I’ll tell you what, I got a couple negative tests and I saw that we were gonna come back out here and we were gonna play these rock and roll shows —” the enthusiastic crowd roared over the end of that sentence, making it impossible to understand what he was saying.

They settled down, though, in time for him to clearly say this: “So, thank y’all for being here when we got back on the road. After going so long without being able to play for real human beings, this means the world to us.”

Isbell had promised in an interview with the Observer a couple of weeks ago that this setlist would be different from the ones he presented to Charlotte in 2017 and 2018, and he did so mostly by way of six songs off “Reunions” plus three from “Georgia Blues,” the album of covers of songs by Georgia-hailing artists that he put out in October.

One ended up providing one of the most electric performances of the evening.

Covering Drivin’ N Cryin’s “Honeysuckle Blue” — which appeared on “Georgia Blues” — Isbell went full Southern rocker, charging hard with both his voice and his guitar and then giving way to his guitarist Sadler Vaden, who picked up the vocals in the second half of the song. (On the studio version, Vaden actually sings the whole thing. Vaden, by the way, was actually in Drivin’ N Cryin’ — though not originally. He was only 3 when “Honeysuckle Blue” came out in 1989.)

It can be difficult, sometimes, in a place like Ovens to figure out when it’s OK to stand up, because as a traditional auditorium the vibe feels so geared toward sitting down. But in the orchestra, at least, where only two or three had taken a literal stand during the first five songs, about a hundred shot up during “Honeysuckle Blue,” and commenced to dancing, swaying, grooving, and pumping fists.

The crowd was equally euphoric during the country-rock power ballad “Outfit,” which Isbell wrote when he was a guitarist for Drive-By Truckers back in the early 2000s.

By this point, pretty much anyone still sitting down was staring at a bunch of other people’s backs and bobbing heads.

And of course, the staples were all there, too — “24 Frames,” “Last of My Kind,” “Hope the High Road,” “Super 8,” “Cover Me Up.”

The latter closed the main part of his set, beginning with Isbell alone on the stage, holding an acoustic guitar and bathed in blue light while he belted the aching lyrics about getting sober and his appreciation for the role his wife Amanda Shires played in his recovery. It built slowly and elegantly, as it always does live, with band members returning to the stage one by one to join him; and hit its apex with the line “I swore off that stuff / forever this time,” which sent fans (who’d consumed their fair share of alcohol, amusingly) into a frenzy.

Isbell then hosted an encore that included his opener, Adia Victoria, covering Georgia blueswoman Precious Bryant’s 2005 song “The Truth” and another fan-favorite song he wrote for Drive-By Truckers: “Decoration Day.”

Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit perform at Ovens Auditorium on Friday night.
Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit perform at Ovens Auditorium on Friday night.

It was a perfect night for fans. Despite his recent illness, he was in top form. Although he could have cut corners because of the weather, he didn’t.

But maybe he should have.

The show ended as late as it probably would have under any circumstances — at 11:03 p.m., precisely. It only took a few minutes to wonder whether it should have ended much earlier. Or not happened at all.

Victoria and Isbell were awesome. The roads were awful. Like, awful awful. Like 25 miles per hour on Independence Boulevard and everyone driving with their hazards on and fishtailing if you braked too hard awful. Snow and slick spots everywhere. In a city where no one knows how to drive on snow and ice.

It’s interesting, because Isbell has clearly shown that he cares about his fans’ well-being. If you’ll recall, he was one of the first big-name musicians last year to require everyone coming to his shows to provide proof of COVID vaccination.

Yet Friday night’s show went on despite everyone involved in planning it knowing full well a storm was coming, and in the end, they put hundreds of people — many of whom had had a drink or two — out on the roads in dangerous driving conditions.

Was it worth it? If you made it home safely, the answer I suppose has to be yes. It was a terrific show.

Hopefully everyone who was there made it home safely...

Jason Isbell returns to Ovens on Saturday night with his band The 400 Unit and opening act Adia Victoria. Tickets are still available at www.ticketmaster.com.

Jason Isbell’s setlist

1. “Overseas”

2. “24 Frames”

3. “It Gets Easier”

4. “Dreamsicle”

5. “Last of My Kind”

6. “Honeysuckle Blue”

7. “Alabama Pines”

8. “Elephant”

9. “Be Afraid”

10. “Outfit”

11. “What’ve I Done to Help”

12. “Hope the High Road”

13. “Only Children”

14. “Super 8”

15. “Stockholm”

16. “Driver 8”

17. “Cover Me Up”

Encore

18. “The Truth”

19. “Decoration Day”

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