Jason Isbell needs little introduction, especially to longtime Brendon’s Beats readers, so I’ll try my best to keep it brief. Country outlaw, guitar shredder, ex Drive-By Trucker, and songwriting extraordinaire, Jason Isbell once again rocked the Stifel Theatre on Monday night. This is the second time Isbell and The 400 Unit have visited to Stifel Theatre, though it was known as the Peabody Opera House the first time, on their Nashville Sound tour.
Communist Daughter was stood in as an opening act, and gave a respectable effort. The Minnesota natives played for roughly an hour, and while some of the tracks seemed to bleed together, the set was a rather enjoyable experience, especially driven by excellent harmonies between lead singers Johnny Solomon and Molly More. The mix was very impressive and the lighting added quite a bit to the groups atmospheric instrumentals and the closing track was quite impressive.
They quickly faded from memory, however, when Jason and the band took the stage. I’ll start by speaking to shortcomings, what few there are. There were a few technical issues, which mostly seemed to be monitor related. This manifested itself a few times on tracks like “24 Frames,” and “Hope the High Road,” which fell very early in the set and suffered from a few timing issues because of these issues. Regardless, the band was extremely tight, and solved these issues quickly. Amanda Shires was unable to make it to the show thanks to her own, very successful tour and while her absence was felt, guitarist Sadler Vaden picked up the slack on the harmony vocals. Now, to the highlights.
This was easily one of the best live shows I’ve seen in quite awhile, and the better of the two times I’ve seen the group on this tour. The group opened with “Go It Alone,” an interesting choice, but it set the tone quite well before being immediately eclipsed by an excellent performance of “Molotov,” a track which has done nothing but grow on me since The Nashville Sound’s release.
Following the slight technical issues, they slowed down a bit with “Relatively Easy,” and a very moving performance of “Speed Trap Town.” This track was interrupted by Jason when he noticed a fan in the front few rows recording him, but after a playful “hey Siri, stop recording,” the rest of the song went off without a hitch.
The band sped back up for “Super 8,” and “White Man’s World,” each of which was well performed, though a bit underwhelming.
After this, however, the even stronger second half of the set got underway with what may have been the highlight of the night, “Goddamn Lonely Love.” This is a song which was debuted a decade and a half ago with the Drive-By Truckers, and the many years showed as Jason took many liberties with the vocal melodies and taking a break in the bridge for a fantastic guitar solo, reminding the audience that, in addition to his powerful vocal and once in a lifetime lyrical abilities, he’s also an amazing guitarist.
“Elephant,” followed, which was worked as a simplistic, acoustic ballad, and quickly quieted the room before bringing the mood up a bit with “Last of My Kind.” The latter ended with an interesting fade out, something not often done live.
“Cumberland Gap,” turned the tempo up after this, and was followed by “Tupelo,” a personal favorite which was done to perfection. Vaden’s ear for lead guitar was especially appreciated here, accenting every open space with short, well placed melodies.
“Cover Me Up,” was incredible, as expected, though the first verse was interrupted by Isbell noticing, once again, that a fan in the front row was recording his performance. This was met by a less playful response, which ended with “if you just want to watch me on your phone, you can do that from home, it’s a lot cheaper. I’ll just start over.” He then restarted the song to loud applause. Even more intriguing, the song was ended with a loud, jamming outro which was quite a satisfying finish to the performance, which Isbell dedicated to his wife.
“Stockholm,” and “Flying Over Water,” were, as usual, very well performed and expected on the set list, though everyone was surprised when “Children of Children,” got the nod as the closer for the first set. This is one of the few Isbell songs which isn’t nearly done justice by it’s studio version, but it is quite the live track. The sepia lighting was an excellent choice by the production team, the miniature guitar battle between Jason and Vader was fantastic, and the crashing finish left the crowd begging for more.
The encore was rather short. It opened with another highlight of the night, a loud and energetic performance of “Never Gonna Change,” another longtime hit from his Truckers days. The final piece of the night was “If We Were Vampires,” which is an obvious choice as his most commercially successful song to date, but not the perfect closer.
Overall, this show was fantastic. Jason’s years with the Drive-By Truckers, an infamously incredible touring act, and subsequent long career has made him a workhorse in the studio and on the road, and with the very tight and talented 400 Unit behind him, he delivers an experience which is nearly unparalleled, even by his outlaw country contemporaries.
Jason Isbell is, easily one of the most talented artists of our generation and though that comes through in spades on his studio work, an entirely new dimension is gained when he performs.