A Damn Good Time with Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
Last time Jason Isbell was in Asheville, he played at the Pisgah Brewery, where music performances take place against a sweeping backdrop of Smoky mountains and beautiful vistas. For a guy who made his entree after sitting in with the Drive-By Truckers on rock and roll guitar at an Alabama house party, the Pisgah stage on the edge of the National Forest land felt right. (It was an excellent show, if memory serves.)
This night, Isbell was back, after a couple Grammy awards and other accolades, to play at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium — a 2,500-capacity theater in the heart of downtown. It was more like the setup for a proper sophisticated music experience than it was for a rock and roll show, and I wondered how it would feel to see such a raw, honest artist rock hard across that giant stage.
We were patted down as we entered, pointed around the corner to the ice cream and beer vendors. Past the table of volunteers trying to register people to vote. We were shown to our seats by ushers, and sat happily through the opening act, Amanda Shires with her band.
I got thinking about a night, years ago, at the Comet Tavern in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. The Comet is one of the oldest, grungiest dive bars on the hill, and Amanda Shires was there with her band-at-the-time, Lubbock, Texas-based Thrift Store Cowboys. I was one of maybe five people who ventured out in the rain that weekday night for a show that started probably around 11 p.m. I got chatting with one of the Cowboys, who informed me their fiddle player was about to move to Nashville to try to make it as a solo singer-songwriter. We both thought it ballsy and strange that a fiddler might be determined to make it as a solo artist, but that fact burned Shires into my memory and I’ve followed her career since.
As her albums have dropped, each one has outdone the last, as she has found her footing as an unconventional “solo” artist in front of a shifting roster of backup players. Her songwriting has noticeably strengthened each time, as she’s found a way to extract melody from her arresting poetry. And of course her fiddle work is ridiculous — she was a Texas Playboy when she was barely in her teens. She knows her way around that thing. Aside from that rainy old night at the Comet, I’ve seen her slay at the Basement in Nashville and in an intimate, totally unplugged performance with Isbell during the Newport Folk Festival.
Unfortunately, this night the sound was a loud, cloudy jumble behind which her lyricism and uniquely nuanced vocals got buried. I could gather enough of each song to be able to recognize what she was playing, but as a total musical experience, it left me wanting. I wondered if the sound tech had just given her Isbell’s settings, or if it sounded clearer and more balanced in the stage monitors. The crowd ate it up anyway, and Shires left the stage to a standing ovation.
Though the sound quality remained less-than-ideal throughout, Isbell’s performance was, as expected, outstanding. He tore through songs both old and new, and though barely 24 hours had passed since he released his latest album, Nashville Sound, everyone in the audience already knew all the words. In every direction men and women alike — but mostly men — sang along with their hearts on their sleeves. Like it was karaoke night and the woman they love was standing right in front of them, and the song was a marriage proposal. A friend of mine cooed, “It’s like the Indigo Girls for boys!”
They sung hard for “Something More Than Free,” “Decoration Day,” “Cover Me Up,” “Last of My Kind,” even “White Man’s World,” with its overt reckoning with white male privilege in the face of women, Native Americans, and black folks. This is Asheville, after all; we like our beer hoppy and our country singers woke.
Behind Isbell, the 400 Unit was on fire. Guitarist Sadler Vaden, who released an album of his own last year, made his dexterous, intuitive guitar work look easy, a feat in itself. Chad Gamble’s heroic drum work frequently pushed Isbell’s songs from the predictable ditties we’d heard on record to dynamic live experiences. And, to that end, something must be said of the light show. Though roots music shows are rarely known for their remarkable light design, Isbell’s show went there, without going too far.
So maybe the murky sound was a fair tradeoff for an otherwise well-rounded powerhouse of a show in this theater. Do rock shows ever have great sound? Regardless, go see Isbell when he rolls through your town. He’s on a roll.