Jason Isbell came to the Merriweather Post Pavilion Sunday evening just nine days after releasing one of the year's best albums, "Something More Than Free." In Howard County, he performed five of the record's 11 tracks, including the quieter songs, always a hard sell to a crowd of beer-drinking guys eager to hear the headlining act, My Morning Jacket.
But Isbell pulled it off. He lay down his Goldtop Les Paul and picked up his acoustic guitar to play the new album's best song, 'Speed Trap Town,' the tale of an Alabama hamlet so small that much of its money comes from speeding tickets handed out to out-of-towners. The song's narrator keeps asking himself what's keeping him there, and in the end he decides that nothing, not even his dying father, a philandering state trooper, can hold him there anymore.
Isbell did this with the dramatic authority of his voice, inviting us to lean in on the thoughtful verses and straightening us up on the decisive choruses. His band, the 400 Unit (featuring Baltimore native Derry Deborja on keys), backed that voice with tasteful slide guitar and knockabout Southern rhythms.
The show's long middle section was devoted to similar songs: 'The Life You Chose' and 'Children of Children,' also from the new record, plus 'Codeine' and 'Alabama Pines' from earlier albums. Especially powerful was 'Cover Me Up' from Isbell's 2013 breakthrough album, "Southeastern." This confession of romantic desperation used the old quiet/loud gambit unusually well to contrast the closed-down loneliness of the singer's past and the emotional unfurling of his present.
The show opened up with the rock 'n' roll blast of 'Palmetto State' and 'Stockholm' and ended the same way with 'Super 8 Motel.' When the former Drive-By Trucker sang, "I don't want to die in a Super 8 Motel, just because somebody's evening didn't go so well," you could tell just how close he came to suffering such a fate and how lucky we are that he didn't.
The best way to describe the headlining set that followed is anticlimactic. Not that My Morning Jacket didn't do everything they could to pump up the excitement: cranking up the smoke machine, flashing the strobe lights, stretching the solos, and having lead singer Jim James stalk the stage like a cartoonish shaman while wailing like a falsetto banshee.
But none of this could camouflage the weakness at the center of the presentation: the deadly dull songwriting. The lyrics were filled with the dustiest cliches, and the only thing more predictable than the melodies were the rhythms. Six songs from the group's overpraised new album "The Waterfall" were mixed in with older tunes. Guitarist Carl Broemel and bassist Tom Blankenship were actually quite impressive, but James' overwrought singing and Patrick Hallahan's plodding drumming only reinforced the music's monotony.