Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson
DPAC, Durham
Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014

Last night, Sturgill Simpson and the pneumatic trio that surrounded him barely had time to catch their breath or take in the plush surroundings of the Durham Performing Arts Center. Opening for Southern songwriting favorite and erstwhile Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell, they squeezed the better part of a dozen songs into their 45-minute set—sometimes transitioning directly from one into the next, always taking care not to let the gaps between songs become chinks in the night’s momentum.

Simpson introduced his band as though we’d already met, for instance, and he connected with the crowd only by saying he’d heard people in these parts liked bluegrass music, so now they were going to play some (fast, electric, focused). All indulgence went to the solos of guitarist Laur Joamets, an Estonian ace who has perfected the requisite honky-tonk sizzle and decided to take it for a wild psych ride. His turns didn’t let the action up. Instead, he seared the strings during “Living the Dream,” danced with them during a particularly up-tempo version of “Long White Line.”

The same searching, feverish persona that makes Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music one of the year’s best and most provocative records made his set a series of what’s-next moments. I’ve listened to Metamodern Sounds more than perhaps any other album this year, and even I sat at anxious attention, wondering just how far Joamets might take a solo or just how efficiently Simpson could move from verse to chorus.

And it worked: After every song, people jumped to their feet in individual ovations. Folks peppered throughout the room greeted the start of Metamodern’s opener, “Turtles All the Way Down,” like a radio smash. I pumped my fists when the band, during a rare moment of musical lurch, drifted into their cover of “The Promise,” a number that I’ve more than once referred to as “my shit.” People hollered at the tail end of the solos.

And the instant the set finished, the crowd stood in unison, the room erupting into an end-of-night roar largely reserved for the best headliners. Like someone who’s been commanding big rooms for years rather than playing an empty Pour House just more than a year ago, Simpson never gave listeners the chance to check out. Leaping from your seat the moment he said goodnight felt like the only option.

Most of the night’s crowd, it seems, felt the same way about Isbell, who mixed his Truckers tunes with selections from his solo albums early and often. But I just can’t do it. Where Simpson seems to operate on the edge of the unexpected, Isbell plays a mid-level brand of Southern rock that never moves beyond fine. His guitar solos sound like a series of connected dots, and the full-band arrangements, which swell and recede in exactly the right places, feel like they’ve been exacted within an inch of their lives. In the first 30 minutes, there was talk of collard greens and chicken wings, a slide guitar solo and a dollop of aww-shucks storytelling, all of which felt rehearsed and tested. Isbell’s music feels too weighted by and bloated with canonical rock meat-and-potatoes to move with any energy of its own.

But not me, I guess: I ducked out maybe midway through Isbell’s set, adequately convinced that the night’s verve and pizazz was already backstage, maybe reading Carl Jung or pondering fractals.

“He’s too good,” Isbell said of Simpson early in the evening. That might have been his most resonant line of the night.