A near-constant breeze swept through the open-air Merriweather Post Pavilion on Friday night, but there was a palpable warmth shared throughout the venue that had little to do with the 90-degree weather.
The man largely responsible for it sensed it, too, describing the two-hour set as an "[i]ncredible night of hot rock" on Twitter only a couple hours after he left the stage.
Touring in support of the excellent new album, "The Nashville Sound," Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit provided a summer night's soundtrack of rock, folk and country that felt refreshing and vital, especially at a time when much of American discourse seems bleak at best and inflammatory at worst. In these times, hearing a measured voice of reason felt heartwarming.
The Alabama-born Isbell, backed by his tight five-piece band, kept the banter lighthearted, perhaps because the songs — especially newer tracks — made his points clearly.
Those looking to drown out 24-hour talking heads and social-media bickering, for example, should turn up the chorus of "Hope the High Road," which came early in Friday's set:
I know you're tired
And you ain't sleeping well
Uninspired and likely mad as hell
But wherever you are
I hope the high road leads you home again
To a world you want to live in
There's a thin line between platitudes and plainly stated contemplation, and Isbell, a sharp and gifted songwriter, regularly falls within the latter.
His best songs are filled with stark honesty about human nature, marked with the detailed experience that comes with living, failing and picking yourself up again. He's a 38-year-old husband (to 400 Unit fiddler and solo musician Amanda Shires) and father who has lived hard and embraced sobriety. What's most charming about Isbell is his confidence in being a better person than he was the day before, for himself and his family. (Between songs, he waved to his daughter on the side of the stage.)
On "White Man's World" he regrets not speaking up against racist jokes, but ends on an optimistic note of faith because of "the fire in my little girl's eyes." He trades selfishness for companionship on "Molotov" due to a "brown-eyed girl who rode with me through the mean ol' world." Isbell often frames maturation as something worth striving for.
In concert, the set's flow was much like Isbell's albums, oscillating between quieter acoustic songs and rockers with muscle and lean-but-effective guitar solos. The 400 Unit (which includes keyboardist/accordionist and Baltimore native Derry deBorja) rounded out the sound well — best heard during the spirited highlight "Codeine," from 2011's "Here We Rest" and the rousing singalong "Flying Over Water."
The warmth emanating the stage, which felt like the connective thread that made the set feel so cohesive, wasn't limited to social commentary either. Isbell performed "Cover Me Up," which expresses gratitude for Shires' love in lines like "But home was a dream / One that I'd never seen / til you came along."
The most memorable example of Isbell's lyrical gift came during "If We Were Vampires," the first song of the encore. The concept reads so morbidly on the page — chances are you and your soulmate will die at different times — that "Nashville Sound" producer Dave Cobb wondered if he had been watching "Twilight" before he heard it.
But it's an understatement to say Isbell makes it work. As top-shelf songwriters do, he flips the conceit in a beautiful and memorable way:
Maybe time running out is a gift
I'll work hard til the end of my shift
And give you every second I can find
And hope it isn't me who's left behind
With little accompaniment, he lovingly sang it while staring at Shires, but it resonated with thousands.