Hayes Carll/Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit-Live in Raleigh, NC
Hayes Carll/Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Lincoln Theatre-Raleigh, NC
April 19, 2011
Hayes Carll and Jason Isbell are modern-day troubadours, constantly crisscrossing the country while becoming distinctly familiar with the beer-stained walls and sticky floors of rock club dressing rooms, not to mention the occasional belligerently drunken fan such as the old-enough-to-know-better jackass that doused Isbell and his bandmates almost as soon as they took the stage this night. Ever the showman, Isbell and the 400 Unit finished the song before calmly allowing security take care of business. Carll and Isbell also share a songwriting style, populating their narratives with hard-luck everymen who are fiercely proud and loyal yet often strangled by the regional and familial ties that bind them together. With this in mind, it makes sense that these two kindred spirits would tour together, and their brief East Cost run brought them to the tornado-ravaged City of Oaks on Tuesday night.
Following a brief, but engaging set from opening duo, Shovels and Rope, Hayes Carll emerged onstage, backed by a sturdy and versatile set of backing musicians who masterfully shadowed Carll throughout his set, accentuating his character studies with musical flourishes and arrangements that toed the line between country, folk, and rock settling nicely into the old standby phrase of “alt-country”, a term Carll himself even referenced while explaining his reasoning for incorporating the banjo into one of his tunes: “To be a real alt-country band you need a banjo”. Fitting words, since like the term itself, Carll’s music is so hard to classify and pin down. Fitting in with contemporaries Robert Earl Keen, Steve Earle, and the grandfather of the alt-country genre Willie Nelson, Carll’s songs mesh well in the classic canon of country music, yet pack more rock and roll punch and caustic wit than is allowed for in Nashville these days. It is music that is stubborn, uncompromising, and pulls no punches. Carll is after all a proud Texan, and we know how idiosyncratic folks from the Lone Star State can be.
Classifying music like this has long been a conundrum, a fact acknowledged by Carll several times during his set, as he commented on his eagerness to play on The Tonight Show, despite cries of protest from Conan fans and later waiting around a New York City hotel on the off chance they may be called in to play on Letterman. In short, you gotta take the exposure as it comes, regardless of whatever tags people may put on your music. The support was great on Tuesday night, as fans two-stepped, clanked beer bottles, and sang along to Carll’s sprightly set which was culled together nicely from his most recent two releases. “Kmag Yoyo”, the title track of his great new album, feverishly rollicked along telling the far-out story of a military mission gone haywire. “Stomp and Holler” had a similar effect, bringing the crowd to a rousing cheer with the fabulous send-off “I’m like James Brown/Only white and taller/And all I wanna do is stomp and holler”. “I Got a Gig”, from 2008’s Trouble In Mind, also resonated well, serving as a calling card for singer-songwriters everywhere who are out pursuing their craft, hoping against long odds for success and recognition. Carll also proved well capable of bringing things down, softening the tempo and inspiring slow dances with “Chances Are” and heartfelt sing-a-longs with the anthemic “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart”. The snarky side of Carll was also on display with “Another Like You”, a hilariously drunken tale of Red State/Blue State romance featuring Cary Ann Hearst (half of the Shovels and Rope duo), who reprised her album role as Carll’s intended object of scorn and then affection.
Framed by a large banner featuring the artwork of their latest release, Here We Rest, Isbell and The 400 Unit hit the stage and plunged headfirst into an absorbing set filled with tracks off of his three solo albums and a steady dose of his Drive-By Trucker hits. In fact, he wasted little time visiting that part of his repertoire, opening with the first two tracks from Here We Rest, the reflective “Alabama Pines” and classic-rock charge of “Go It Alone” before launching into “Decoration Day”. Soon fingers were raised to the sky and the DBT-acolytes were happy and hollerin’. Isbell and his band were locked in with the audience and didn’t disappoint; giving the crowd dirty blues: “Try”, blue-eyed soul: “Cigarettes and Wine”, and down-home country: killer new track “Codeine”. Hailing from the musical metropolis of Muscle Shoals, Isbell and The 400 Unit reflect that city’s musical legacy well, eclectically shuffling amongst genres and nailing each one with a healthy mix of practiced precision and happy spontaneity. Guitarist Browan Lollar ‘s playing locked in nicely with Isbell, stepping out front for swampy solos or stepping back into a locked rhythmic strum when Isbell rocked a solo. Keyboardist Derry DeBorja added a swaying groove that that spoke Muscle Shoals, adding credence to the band’s heritage. Bassist Jimbo Hart and drummer Chad Gamble locked in the back row, providing the low end touches that toughen the songs’ edges. The band also doesn’t shy away from their reference points as they expertly covered The Meters’ “Hey Pocky Way” (sung Levon Helm-like by Gamble), Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” (a long-time set inclusion furiously sung by Lollar), and The Boss’ “Atlantic City”, a nicely reworked and surprising choice as the encore closer. Stepping completely out of the Drive-By Truckers’ shadow will prove continually challenging for Isbell as the crowd still reserved more applause for “Danko/Manuel”, “God Damn Lonely Love”, and “Outfit”, than they did for the newer tunes. Live, however, the tracks from Here We Rest have been toughened up and pack a little more punch than they do on the studio recording. Isbell has proven that his lyrics can stand the test of time, now after several years on the road with the same band, he seems to be offering a bit more muscle as well, which will go a long way in keeping his concerts relevant and memorable.
In the ‘70’s, musicians like Carll and Isbell would be playing theaters and arenas and we would see their songs pop up on those ubiquitous Time-Life CD collection ads. They’d probably be a bit richer too, as the music they make was a bit more commercially viable in those days. Their literate tunes are still resonating with audiences now though, and the relentless drive that keeps them coming back around to our towns makes things much the better for music fans and surely very rewarding for the musicians involved.