reCAP :: Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit :: 2019.09.14 :: The Capitol Theatre
Words by Jordan Becker
It is probably a fool’s errand to try to choose the best Americana artist working today, but I’m going to go with Jason Isbell (and his great band, the 400 Unit), and I think that Saturday night’s show at the Cap proved my point. And it isn’t only those of us in the packed house who would likely agree. Since 2009, Isbell has won 9 Americana Music Awards, including a sweep of Artist, Album and Song of the Year in 2015, and 4 Grammys, among others.
Having seen Isbell early in his solo career, after leaving Drive-By Truckers, while he was still wrestling with substance abuse issues, it is remarkable to see how he has turned into a confident frontman and consummate musician. He had the crowd in the palm of his hand from the opening song, “Anxiety,” which Isbell explained was, for now, the favorite song of his four year old daughter with wife Amanda Shires. The show was being livestreamed for Relix, and it seemed that Isbell chose a setlist that included some his most well-known and accessible songs, although he made a few tasty detours.
Isbell followed the set opener with two more uptempo tunes, “Hope the High Road,” and “24 Frames,” before treating the audience to a quieter new song, “Overseas. The set then built again through “Last of My Kind,” “Outfit,” which is one of Isbell’s great Drive-By Truckers compositions, and “White Man’s World, to an epic, thunderous version of “Decoration Day,” another song from the Truckers days, based on Isbell family lore.
The band, featuring Derry deBorja on keys, Sadler Vaden on guitar, Jimbo Hart on bass and Chad Gamble on drums, have been compared to the E Street Band due to their talent and versatility, and all night, it seemed as if they and Isbell were locked in. Vaden’s guitar playing, both traditional and slide, was a highlight of the night, and Isbell’s joy at their playing was evident as he pogoed with his back to the audience during “Last of My Kind.”
Isbell gave the audience a chance to catch its breath after “Decoration Day,” with the mellower “Tupelo,” the brilliant mediation on love and time, “If We Were Vampires,” and an older song, “Tour of Duty,” featuring two acoustic guitars and deBorja on accordion, before launching into a mini-set of songs from his 2013 career breakthrough, Southeastern, including the crime/love ballad “Live Oak,” the soaring “Stockholm,” “Flying Over Water,” and “Cover Me Up,” which Isbell wrote for Shires, who often appears on stage with the 400 Unit. However, she was absent Saturday, sitting in at Madison Square Garden with Brandi Carlisle, her fellow Highwoman, whose new album is getting rave reviews.
Following that intense love song, the band kicked into “Super 8,” a Rolling Stones influenced raveup about dangerous behavior on the road, and it seemed like that would be the end of the main set.
But then, Isbell played the first notes of Jimi Hendrix’s classic “Little Wing,” which happens to be one of my favorite songs. It was a remarkable cover, with searing guitar solos from both Isbell and Vaden, and if you told me I had to pick which one was better, I couldn’t.
If that was not enough (and it could have been), the encore included “Maybe It’s Time,” a song Isbell wrote for the film “A Star Is Born” and a raucous cover of Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac song “Oh Well.”
I’m a member of two Jason Isbell fan groups on Facebook, and the general consensus of those who saw the show live, or streaming, was that Saturday’s show was something special.
I’ve been aware of The Sadies, but sort of overlooked them—after Saturday’s opening set, that is going to change. The Sadies, fronted by Toronto born brothers Travis and Dallas Good, have been playing their form of Americana since the early 90s. There’s more than a little Old ‘97s in their mix of twang and rock, but there are also influences from 80s cowpunk, surf music, psychedelia, and others. Their set was energetic and exciting, and included a number of extended instrumental sections, that reminded me of 80s Athens band Love Tractor. Travis dazzled the crowd with his fast picking, and whipped out a fiddle for a twisted view of religion, “God Bless The Infidels” that turned into to a wild hoedown, “Uncle Larry’s Breakdown.” As much as the crowd was pumped to see the headliners, they were appreciative of The Sadies, as was Isbell, who praised and thanked them from the stage a number of times during his show.