By Sarah Rodman
October 29, 2018 at 10:45 PM EDT
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Erika Goldring/Getty Images

Not everyone gets to play the Ryman Auditorium. Fewer still perform at the hallowed Nashville venue multiple times. An even smaller number of artists can claim annual residencies at the Mother Church, as the space is affectionately nicknamed.

For four years running, critically acclaimed Americana rocker Jason Isbell has been in that number, and on Saturday night — the fifth of six shows in the 2018 residency — he proved why he’s repeatedly been extended the invite. (Isbell also recently released Live From the Ryman, drawn from last year’s stint.)

In a stunning, emotional, and cathartic performance with his longtime band, the 400 Unit, Isbell pulled off the most delicate of balancing acts: oscillating from guitar-driven intensity to hushed, introspective balladry and several stops between, with a seamlessness that still allowed for agreeable frayed edges. That was particularly true when it came to the fiery-yet-economical solos that flowed all night from the fretboards of Isbell, guitarist Sadler Vaden, and fiddler Amanda Shires.

Even more remarkably, the 39-year-old and his band switched up the set lists each night. Saturday he drew mainly from his three most recent albums — 2017’s The Nashville Sound, 2015’s Something More Than Free, and 2013’s Southeastern — but also reached back in time for several key tracks, including the poignant, driving Drive-By Truckers anthem “Decoration Day” and the 2011 song “Codeine.” He also played his world-weary contribution to the A Star is Born soundtrack, “Maybe It’s Time.”

Highlights came from songs both frenzied (the incendiary cover of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane” that closed the show) and pin-drop intimate (his gorgeous duet with wife Shires on Warren Zevon’s “Mutineer,” and the tender tribute to their life and love “If We Were Vampires.”) It all elicited what the best shows do: fist pumps, sing-alongs, tears, laughs, and the sense that the artist on stage is speaking directly to and for you, to your own bruised heart and the troubled world at large.

The Alabama native has had a particularly triumphant year, with three wins at the Americana Awards in September, including Album of the Year for The Nashville Sound, which was also named Americana Album of the Year at the Grammys in February. (It was also nominated for a CMA award for Album of the Year in 2017. Isbell was both honored and befuddled by that particular recognition.) Although he hardly seems like an artist who puts much stock in those kinds of accolades, it’s heartening to see such a strong performance and know that others — peers and fans — understand that intelligence, craftsmanship, and passion are worth rewarding.

At least some of Isbell’s buoyancy likely came courtesy of openers Diarrhea Planet. The thrash and pop Nashville band recently “retired” after some farewell shows, only to reunite at Isbell’s behest. (All the handpicked openers were Music City-based.) He and Vaden joined the already four-guitarist-strong group for one number and then returned with Sturgill Simpson in tow to close out the band’s career once more with a frenzied, jubilant guitar army, complete with DP’s Emmit Miller smashing his guitar onto the Ryman stage.

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