Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit and Amanda Shires at Thalia Mara Hall, Jackson, Mississippi
Amanda Shires’s story, told during her opening set, involves a boyfriend who lived in Alabama. He convinces her that it might be a good idea to come and live with him. She loads the Jetta and heads south from Nashville. His directions lead to a building rather than a house, and his place, such as it is, is four flights up, with bats flying in, and a convenient bar downstairs. She decides to go back to Music City, and he comes along. On the way back, she writes “Wasted and Rolling.” After this story, the boyfriend, now husband, steps out to play guitar on the song. He’s a large figure, smiling in a black shirt over gray jeans. She’s wearing a black two-piece outfit (it’s okay to use that term for women’s clothes I think) and six-inch heels. As her song says, the combination of these two on stage is “electric, magnetic”, and they are rolling, but rolling sober now.
The large audience at Thalia Mara Hall in Jackson, Mississippi, is ready to roll, too. As my wife said recently (she’s a hard-core fan): “People are either obsessed with Jason Isbell or they know nothing about him.” This speaks in some ways to the insular nature of music categorization, but she says it because she believes in the power of his music. If you know him, you love him. This crowd knows him.
After Shires opened with a short but excellent set, Isbell and the 400 Unit, including Shires, kicked it off with Anxiety, one of eight songs they played from the new record, The Nashville Sound. “24 Frames” was next and then “Tupelo,” with its all too true reference to the Mississippi one-week spring (very similar to Alabama’s). After that, they play the most-promoted cut from TNS, “Hope The High Road.” Yes, 2016 was a son of a bitch, but this little slice of 2017 in Jackson, Mississippi, was turning out to be pretty good.
The 400 Unit is as tight and solid as I’ve seen them. Old timers Chad Gamble (drums), Jimbo Hart (bass), and Derry deBorja (keys) are joined by Sadler Vaden on guitar and Shires. Isbell calls them out individually and brags on the band all night, saying at one point, “I couldn’t do any of this.” We can debate that some other time, but the compliment is well-deserved. They are really good at what they do.
Vaden plays the most visible role as the axe wielder who would give Isbell a run for his money in a duel. And before the night is over they do it, literally. Vaden kicks it off with the solo on “Decoration Day,” then he and Isbell trade off solos on “White Man’s World.” At the end of the main show, they square off, mano a mano, on “Never Gonna Change.” It’s old school rock guitar, trading licks, playing cleanly and hard. They’re doing things that are way above our head but doing it right there where we can reach out and almost touch it. It was electric, magnetic, they’re rolling, and we’re along for the ride.
It was like that all night, really, the song selection was just right, rocking hard then letting up a bit. Isbell would take the acoustic for a turn, then back to the electric. DeBorja and his collection of keys and his accordion worked in without overworking, and Gamble and Hart (sounds like a Nevada divorce law firm) were the locked-and-loaded rhythm section. Shires was everywhere with that fiddle, leaning back, way back, as the bow went across those strings. She strolls all over the stage (and backs up!) in those heels like it’s nothing. That’s one thing Isbell definitely couldn’t do. The whole show was framed by excellent light production with the color-changing anchor sparrow, a symbol of the Shires-Isbell marriage, hanging above it all.
The crowd knew the material. “Cover Me Up,” the love song that chooses quilts and loving over chopping wood, had us singing along, mainly on key. I suppose this is now the thing at Isbell’s shows, because he didn’t seem surprised when it happened. He also got some help on “Last of My Kind,” one of the new songs. It lends itself to that, with the repetitive lines, but the crowd seemed prepped and primed – The Nashville Sound has sold well, and people have listened to it. So much for the death of the album.
And so much for the idea that being a bit political will cost you fans. There was some rumbling about “White Man’s World,” a song of privilege, race, and gender, as well as the not-so-veiled reference to last November in “Hope and the High Road.” Being that this show took place in a state Trump carried handily, and happened just a few blocks from a City Hall built with slave labor now occupied by an African-American Mayor named Chokwe Lumumba (he’s actually the second mayor with that name, as his father served a few years ago), “White Man’s World” is worth a mention here. So here’s the mention: Isbell performed it without comment and it was warmly received. I’m not sure you can read much into (or out of) that – he could have covered Skynyrd’s “Saturday Night Special” and this gun-friendly crowd would’ve probably sung along without irony. Speaking of covers, there was one, “Whipping Post,” at the end. Magnificent.
Isbell and Shires have built something here, an honest and forthright approach to living, songwriting, and performance that resonates on several levels. They defy genre – Isbell says he’s folk but he performs like a true Southern rocker, and of course he is often labeled as country (find a steel guitar on that stage, I dare you). These two have lived out a courtship and marriage, and now parenthood, right before us, while staying true to their voices. Electric, magnetic. And on this night, we were all rolling.
Hope The High Road
White Man’s World
Last Of My Kind
The Life You Choose
Flying Over Water
Cover Me Up
Speed Trap Town
Never Gonna Change