He is a wordsmith as well as a master guitar player, executing both talents with the utmost taste and grace.
Peabody Opera House, St. Louis
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit are not household names just yet, but they will be. Isbell been writing and releasing songs for almost two decades now, both as a solo artist and as a member of alternative Southern rock outfit Drive-by Truckers. Like his Dave Cobb–produced cohorts Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson, Isbell is making waves in the “Country music revival” with his unique brand of country-infused Americana. In 2015, with a number one record under his belt, he was most definitely turning heads in the country world. Without major label backing, he was able to climb to the top of the charts strictly using raw talent; a breath of fresh air in today’s popular musical climate.
Last night was the second time in 12 months that I have had the pleasure of seeing Isbell at the Peabody Opera House. This time, he was freshly off multiple Grammy wins, which was very apparent in his confident disposition. The 400 Unit has stayed the same since then, a collection that includes his wife Amanda Shires on violin/fiddle/backup vocals, Derry Deborja formerly of nearby Belleville, Ill., alt-country legends Son Volt) on keys/accordion, Jimbo Hart on bass, Sadler Vaden on guitar, and Chad Gamble on drums.
Opening act Shovels and Rope did a fantastic job of rolling out the red carpet for the Americana troubadour, although the mix was lacking a bit in clarity, through no fault of their own.
Isbell’s set spanned his entire career, from songs he wrote while with the Truckers to his latest solo release, Something More Than Free. The artist and his crew kicked off the show with “Stockholm” from his breakthrough album Southeastern. He then lit into “Palmetto Rose,” a bluesy/folk number that really set the tone for the entire show. One thing he and his band can never be accused of is not playing the songs true to the album. Between the synth swells, guitar licks, and smooth harmonies, Isbell and Co. nail down the tracks as if they were doing them live in the studio.
He also can’t be accused of playing favorites with his guitars. Being a guitar player myself, it was entertainment enough to watch his techs bring him guitar after magnificent guitar. One of the axes he played, a Thinline Fender Telecaster, was purchased from St. Louis favorite, Killer Vintage, earlier that day. He played his new axe on “24 Frames,” a cut from his latest album.
Over time, Isbell’s stage show has exponentially changed to include stained-glass lights (to give it a Ryman Auditorium look), as well as crowd blinders. These really intensified the drama in his already-brilliant songwriting, but especially on “Decoration Day” and “Never Gonna Change,” both dynamic tunes featuring dual guitar solos between Isbell and Vaden. The lights also added to his standout tune of the night (at least to all of the ladies in the crowd), “Cover Me Up,” a song preceded by a story about how he won’t dedicate the song to anyone but his wife. This portion of the show provided insight into his songwriting process and his obvious adoration for his wife.
Isbell did a remarkable job of keeping the set list flowing. There were highs and lows that really seemed to compliment each other. He’d take you way down with the heartfelt tale of a struggling small-town alcoholic in “Speed Trap Town,” then brings you right back up with “Super 8,” a song challenging his Southern rock roots. The dips in his set kept the crowd on their toes, wondering how they were going to feel next.
Isbell closed out his pre-encore set with “Children of Children” from Something More Than Free. He walked off stage mid-song, trading in his Martin acoustic and Neil Young–influenced vocals for his famed “Cooder-Caster” and a slide, and then proceeded to bring the show home like only he can. The crowd blinders and screaming guitars reminded the audience why they came—as if the first 15 songs hadn’t already done so. After a brief intermission, he and Shires performed “Flagship” off their most recent effort. They put a great big bow on the evening with “Codeine”: a cult favorite, an obvious sing-a-long, and a perfect end to the evening.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit provide a show that delivers on all levels. He is a wordsmith as well as a master guitar player, executing both talents with the utmost taste and grace. And from what I can tell, he is only getting better as time goes on. | Greg Clark