Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Cullen Performance Hall
February 13, 2016
Jason Isbell doesn't think a Jason Isbell show is an ideal choice for a romantic rendezvous.
He was introducing "Cover Me Up," a song he wrote for wife (and 400 Unit fiddle player) Amanda Shires, and said the band would be on a plane bound for California the next day, which was why there was a bouquet of roses on the stage next to Shires that night. He remarked to the gentlemen in the audience that if they'd bought their wives or girlfriends tickets that night for Valentine's Day, they really should have done something else.
On one hand, it's kind of presumptuous for him to assume his music appeals only to bearded guys in Western snap shirts. The female-to-male ratio was certainly more favorable at Cullen Hall Saturday night than at, for purposes of comparison, your typical performance by Isbell's former band, the Drive-By Truckers. On the other, we can probably take the remarks as typical of a singer-songwriter who's grown more comfortable in his own skin yet is still more than capable of delivering a tight and powerful set.
Isbell famously — or not, depending on how closely you follow such things — got clean in 2012. The line "I sobered up and I swore off that stuff" (also from "Cover Me Up") got one of the biggest crowd reactions of the night, and if you hadn't seen him perform since then, the change in energy and demeanor is undeniable. Leaner than ever and singing with sometimes surprising force and intensity, he and the band kept the crowd engaged with a set list that drew heavily from his most recent albums, as well as showcasing a few DBT faves.
Focusing on Southeastern and Something More than Free proved to be a good choice, and not just for the usual reasons. Isbell's two post-sobriety albums are (shockingly) much stronger than the 400 Unit's first few efforts. "Palmetto Rose," "24 Frames" and "Speed Trap Town" (from SMTF) are arguably three of the finest songs released in the past few years, hitting common themes like small-town longing and desperation with uncanny precision and an almost indie vibe. "Stockholm" and "Super 8" from Southeastern, by contrast, are still straightforward, cloud-pleasing rockers.
Norwegians also apparently don't like the Swedish. Who says you can't learn anything at a rock concert?
The Drive-By Trucker cuts elicited fairly positive reactions, which shouldn't surprise anyone. And in fairness, the more distance Isbell puts between himself and his old band, the more apparent it becomes that the songs he wrote surpassed most of their usual output. "Decoration Day," written from stories about his family he promised not to tell anyone, and "Never Gonna Change," an electric middle finger from a North Alabama reprobate, were always more direct and accessible than Patterson Hood's George Wallace apologia. And along with "Outfit," they reminded me how much I miss that incarnation of the Truckers.
Isbell played for almost two hours, closing off with "Codeine" from 2011's Here We Rest. Aside from a couple of low-ish points (an excessively wanky solo trade-off with lead guitarist Sadler Vaden during "Never Gonna Change" being one), it was an exceptional performance.
And in the end, I found myself reluctantly coming around to Isbell's assessment of the romantic impact of his music. For while my wife and I had a fine time, a woman behind us angrily walked out on her husband and didn't come back. Meanwhile, the two bros in front of us might as well have left their dates at home for as much attention as they paid them, leading to a very chilly departure during the encore.
"Goddamn Lonely Love" indeed.
Personal Bias: I initially thought the DBTs and Isbell were both weaker for the split. I now only believe half of that statement.
The Crowd: Flying the [pre-distressed] flannel.
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Overheard In The Crowd: "Roll Tide!" Over and over again. I didn't have the heart to tell football boy Isbell went to the University of Memphis.
Random Notebook Dump: "Isbell definitely bought his tickets to the gun show."
Flying Over Water
Decoration Day (DBT song)
The Life You Chose
Outfit (DBT song)
Never Gonna Change (DBT song)
Something More Than Free
If It Takes a Lifetime
Cover Me Up
Speed Trap Town
Children of Children