Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
The Pour House
Jason Isbell ambled on to the stage at the Pour House on Friday night, took a swig of Jack Daniels, picked up his electric guitar, and said, “Don’t get me wrong, last night was fun, but I’m glad we’re playing electric tonight.” After the bumping “Seven-Mile Island” and a long, rousing version of “Try,” the audience was glad too. And it only got better.
While Isbell and the backing band 400 Unit played a more-than-solid acoustic show Thursday night, the smiles on the band members’ faces were bigger on Friday, the audience was rowdier, and the raw energy would have killed a small horse.
Isbell, formerly of the Drive-By Truckers, mostly played songs from his two recent solo albums, but he made sure to sprinkle in plenty of old Truckers favorites, like “Decoration Day,” “Outfit,” and “Goddamn Lonely Love,” all of which he played both nights. With Jimbo Hart on bass, Derry DeBorja (formerly of Son Volt) on keyboards, and Browan Lollar on guitar, the 400 Unit were tight musically, playing with Isbell as opposed to behind him.
Singer/guitarist Josh Roberts delivered a spastic, beautiful acoustic romp during an opening set on Thursday. Local band Leslie gave a beastly, ’70s-style throwdown early in the night on Friday.
Isbell showed off the multidimensional talent of his band and the versatility of his soulful Southern voice during the two-night stint. On Thursday, he softly crooned through acoustic standards “The Magician,” “In a Razor Town,” and the sharecroppers-versus-the-world anthem “Thank God for the TVA.” The gravity of the stories had people slowly swaying and tapping their hearts as his voice floated above them. And on Friday, he just killed it, pouring everything he had into howling “Try,” “Danko/Manuel,” his ode to the Band, and the best song of either night, his righteous fuck-off anthem, “Never Gonna Change,” during which he broke a string mid-solo and didn’t pause, continuing his monster solo for several minutes on his newly-five-string guitar.
Isbell doesn’t say much in between songs, but when he does, he alternates between a serious artist explaining how much these songs mean to him and a goofy old boy looking for a laugh. On Thursday, as the band started “Dress Blues,” he told the story of Marine Matt Connolly, the quarterback at Isbell’s high school, who was killed in Iraq “by the most cowardly of weapons, the homemade bomb.” When Isbell sang, “Nobody here could forget you/You showed us what we had to lose,” it was the emotional peak of the night. A few minutes later, the band left the stage for a few songs and as Isbell tuned up his acoustic, he took down a drunk dumbass who was for yelling his favorite song over and over. “I may play that song tonight,” said Isbell. “But nothing you say will affect what I play. You should be spending that energy trying to get laid.” The audience ate it up and the kid shut up.
While Isbell’s songwriting chops are as good any today, the band also brought the house down with a few carefully chosen covers that they made their own. A great version of Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” was an early highlight on Thursday, and the their concert standards, Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic” and Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” finished up the acoustic set and left the crowd begging for more. On Friday, after a harder version of “Psycho Killer,” they somehow turned Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” into a rocker (with Isbell killing the whistling) and they had the audience jumping up and down hysterically with their kick-ass finale, Tom Petty’s “American Girl.”
Isbell is the rare performer who doesn’t seem to have a weak moment onstage. Every lilt in his voice and every shredding solo on his trusty Gibson is genuine, in-the-moment, and purposeful. He is utterly in control, toying with the audience like a hypnotist. Very few artists can articulate how they really feel about something so clearly, and like all the greats Isbell makes it look easy. And together with the badass 400 Unit, they are unstoppable.