Hershey, PA was cool and comfortable on the evening of October 5. The temperature was +60°, the wind was light, the humidity low. The smell of chocolate, which usually permeates the town, was absent. After a pleasant meal and several martinis, we stepped out into the autumn twilight. One easy five-minute stroll later, we were scanned by friendly venue personnel. We took our loge seats and settled into surprisingly plush old-time theater cushions. Inside the 1900 seat Hershey Theater, the nearly sold out room was comprised of adults, roughly 30-60 years of age, a well-behaved mob ready to get down. At 7;30 on the dot, the lights dimmed and the show began.
Josh Ritter radiated positivity from the stage, and it was infectious. We, the people, were instantly won over. Ritter seemed so damned happy up there, like he cannot get over the fact that he is able to support himself by making music. He was acutely aware of his audience, all thanks and gratitude. He went off script throughout the set, stopping in the middle of introductions to muse on the lovely 80 year-old theater, the town (excuse me, “unincorporated community”) and, of course, the chocolate. Ritter knew where he was. You wouldn’t hear him mistakenly calling out, “Hello, (name of the wrong city)!” He kept his head up, played to the cheap seats. The rhythm section of Zack Hickman and Liam Hurley propelled the songs and helped beef up the sound of Ritter’s Martin acoustic, while Austin Nevins ably covered the rest of the arrangements without the assistance of missing keyboard player Sam Kassirer.
Ritter’s lyrics are like a box of old photos uncovered from the back of the closet. Some are crisp as the day they were printed; others are indistinct, giving up little detail to help assign meaning. Most lie somewhere in between. He kicked off the set with the dream imagery of “Monster Ballads,” from his 2006 album, The Animal Years. “Me & Jiggs,” (The Golden Age of Radio) find the protagonist engaged in a patchwork reminiscence. “Henrietta, Indiana” (Sermon on the Rocks) paints a portrait of men in a dying town; lost jobs, lost faith, and desperate actions. The mournful radio hit “Girl In the War” smacks middle America in the head with the reality of conflict in the 21st century. A ten-song collection of tragedies and victories, served with a smile, a pleasant voice and a toe-tapping beat.
Within fifteen minutes of Josh Ritter’s final number, the honky-tonk rouser “Getting Ready to Get Down,” gear was swapped out and Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit took the stage. They opened with the A minor growl of “Go It Alone,” backed up with “Flying over Water.” Isbell won over the crowd when he chose to not save the Grammy winner for dessert, playing “24 Frames” three songs in. He and the 400 delivered a solid program of Alt-Country from his solos albums; his work as a member of the 400 Unit; and Drive By Truckers classics, “Decoration Day” and “Never Gonna Change.”
Isbell, despite his brooding demeanor, did not hide behind the mike stand. He prowled the stage; interacted with bandmates; traded licks with Sadler Vaden. The jams were turned loose, bluesy and boozy, when he revisited the DBT material. With feedback and notes bent outside of a song’s key, he channeled Neil Young wringing his Les Paul’s neck. Isbell hides in plain sight, on the other side of the footlights, his expression solemn beyond the occasional grin. This weren’t no laughin’ party to him. He was there to do a job. And he brought his sharpest tools: his guitar playing, his voice, and his songwriting.
Isbell is not the most technical guitarist, but for an entertainer whose output has been some of the sweetest, non-pop country of the last several years, he has relatively few traditional country licks in his arsenal. His sound harkens back to 70s pickers Allen Collins, Peter Frampton, and early Crazy Horse NY. With his voice plaintive yet powerful, if the sound system had died, he still would have been heard in the back of the room. But he’s most powerful as a songwriter, as is Ritter. His skill as a lyricist is in his ability to suggest beauty, but display tragedy. A fine example is “Codeine” (Here We Rest), about the girl behind the bar with her eyes big as stars who ends up broken-hearted and addicted to codeine. There’s “Super 8,” a rowdy little roadhouse number in which Our Hero nearly goes into respiratory arrest and perishes at the titular motel.
The 400 Unit played a fine set. Sixteen songs and three encores the last of which, “Children of Children,” begins as an illustration of a pastoral South. By the second verse we realize it’s about the lost youth of a teenage mother, and the child who feels guilty for it -Jason’s mother was only 17 years old when he was born. Halfway through, Isbell trades the Martin for his Telecaster and slide. His playing is fluid and enthusiastic, a bit more Gary Rossington than Duane Allman.
Josh Ritter and Jason Isbell were cool and comfortable, and they made sure the audience walked out feeling the same way. The night wasn’t about revolution, political posturing or cries for justice beyond meaning suggested by and inferred from lyrics. It was about having a great time, rising up, raising our voices, and rocking out. It was about being home by 10:30.
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