|photo: Danny Clinch|
Three years ago, I caught the acclaimed Alabama singer/songwriter for the first time at Stagecoach and was blown away by his brief set there.
For the past decade, Isbell has been putting out solo CDs with honest lyrics about everyday situations that are so vivid, they often cut to the core. No wonder he's won half a dozen Americana Music Association Awards and two Grammys (the latter for last year's "Something More Than Free" album).
This June, a new studio effort, "The Nashville Sound," arrives in stores. It finds Isbell re-teaming with celebrated producer Dave Cobb and marks the first appearance by longtime backing group the 400 Unit in six years.
In Anaheim, Isbell and the band drew a packed crowd to House of Blues, which opened a few weeks prior. They kicked off the excellent 90-minute, 16-song main set with some bright, ringing guitars on "Stockholm" and fans immediately sang along loudly. "Flying Over Water" continued the strong initial sequence from 2013's "Southeastern" - among my top 10 albums of that year - and featured the first of several stinging electric guitar solos by Isbell. "24 Frames" was colored by Derry deBorja's sweet swelling organ sounds and lead guitarist Sadler Vaden's tasty slide work.
Before the picturesque "Different Days," Isbell talked about his surroundings. "This is in a strange area. It's weird as hell...It's clean and safe here, like a tiny Toronto." After the quiet tune ended, he joked, "that's the most Canadian of all my songs."
Following a truly resonant "Alabama Pines," Isbell called an audible and said he wanted to hear deBorja on accordion. So they did a spirited "Codeine," off 2011's "Here We Rest." The bleak situation detailed in "Speed Trap Town" had a Steve Earle-type reality and a searing solo from Vaden.
Later, the appealing and fun "If it Takes a Lifetime" and darkly riveting "Cover Me Up" (where Isbell began solo acoustic, then was gradually joined by the other musicians as the audience howled with approval) were among several highlights. But it was a transcendent "Decoration Day" toward the end, which boasted a Crazy Horse vibe, that saw the band pull out all the stops.