Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: July 23, 2011, at Fire in Jackson, Mississippi
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit turned in a workmanlike, straightforward performance on Saturday night in Jackson, Mississippi, playing (by my count) five songs off their new CD, Here We Rest, none from the previous album, three from Sirens Of The Ditch, three from his days with the Drive-By Truckers, and a few cover songs. Mr. Isbell and his bandmates (less guitarist Browan Lollar, who didn’t make the show) gave those present an hour and a half of solid rock and roll, Southern style. Mr. Isbell is truly Southern, in the best sense of that term. Alabama runs out of his songs like juice out of a Chilton County peach, minus the sweetness. His lyrics often contain hard-core truths, and he handles them and his guitar as casually and unafraid as an old Sand Mountain preacher might handle a serpent.
It’s sometimes hard to realize what you’re seeing as you’re watching it unfold. In the 90’s I was privileged to watch Smoltz, Glavine and Maddux pitch for the Braves. We now know how rare their run was, but while it was happening, watching any given game, early on, say the second game of a series against the Rockies, mid-season, you’re watching a baseball game. Saturday night, as I watched Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, I wondered if something similar was going on. I don’t know when we’ve had a better Southern songwriter – if you listen to Cigarettes and Wine (which he didn’t play Saturday night), Outfit or Codeine (which he did), you have to wonder where Mr. Isbell will fit in the bigger picture of Americana music as we look back on this run he’s on. But on Saturday night at Fire nightclub in Jackson, Mississippi, we were simply seeing an excellent musician in the midst of a long tour, playing his songs, fresh off a gig in New Orleans the night before, headed next to Atlanta, then Asheville, then Mobile, then somewhere else after that . . . and it was quite good.
I’m not sure if it was because of Lollar’s absence, but Mr. Isbell never shed the electric guitar for an acoustic the entire evening. Even when he came out for the first song of the encore alone to play Todd Snider’s song, Play A Train Song, he was still electric. I’m probably in a minority here because Mr. Isbell’s electric guitar work is so superb, but I’d like to hear a song or two each show where the lyrics drive things rather than the heavy guitar. But that’s the closest thing I can find to criticism of what was otherwise a very good show.
Below is the setlist:
Go It Alone
Tour Of Duty
In A Razor Town
Heart On A String
Hey Pocky Way (Chad Gamble lead vocals)
Goddamn Lonely Love
Play A Train Song
Never Gonna Change/Stone Free
Just a few observations about the on-stage happenings during the show: Keyboard player Derry DeBorja comes out with a bottle of black label whiskey at the beginning of the show and it’s passed around the stage until it’s gone somewhere near the end of the set. When Mr. Isbell comes out, wearing black shirt, jeans and boots, he’s holding a beer (he gets a swig or three from the whiskey bottle during the night as well). He looks good – no worse for the wear at this stage of the tour. He is gracious to the decent crowd (Fire is pretty big for a bar venue, and it’s not completely full) engaging in a little banter here and there, with a few funny comments – I’ll paraphrase a couple: We can send a man to the moon and Magic Johnson no longer has AIDs but we can’t keep my guitar cord from getting as tangled as the federal budget. Later, as the audience shouts requests: Are you saying “fuck that” or “Foghat?” I can’t tell, but I like a Slow Ride.
I didn’t have the opportunity to meet Mr. Isbell after the show. It was after midnight and that’s late for an old guy. But I certainly hope to do so at some point down the road, as this guy is quite a talent. Maybe I can get him to sign a baseball for me some day.
You can follow Mando Lines on Twitter @mando_lines. Jason Isbell is also on Twitter (great tweets, by the way) @jasonisbell.
Photo by Mando Lines. [Hey, it’s not the greatest photo, but I took it on an iPhone.]