GIVING IT THEIR ALL: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Best band in the world? Just maybe… Live during the Middle of the Map Fest at KC’s Uptown Theater on May 5, the man and the band wrenched emotion out of thin air while showcasing material both old and from the new album. Below, watch some 2017 live clips.

BY DANNY PHILLIPS

I’m sitting in a dark bar writing about the previous night’s performance of Jason Isbell and his Alabama brothers (and wife Amanda Shires) in the 400 Unit, scribbling my reflections on the back of a Budweiser box with a borrowed pen.

Squinting in the low light of The Rendezvous, my hometown punk rock bar, I try to piece together what I saw at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City with one of my best friends in the world the previous evening.  Prince is blasting from the overly loud jukebox.  I try to think of memories and melody.  I’m waiting for a band called the Creeps, writing about what could be the tightest, best band I’ve ever seen in my life.

In Kansas City, as part of the yearly Middle of the Map Fest, three days of national, regional and local acts of every size, shape and flavor, Isbell and the 400 Unit readied their fans for the upcoming release of Isbell’s The Nashville Sound.  (June 16th on Southeastern Records)

Isbell and his compatriots showed on this Friday night in the barbecue capital of the world, why they should be considered in the conversation for best band in America and Isbell as one of the finest guitarists of the last twenty years.  He and the 400 Unit, a group of topnotch players that have been with Isbell for years, proved that they are some of the best players in any genre, of any band going today.

They hit all the spots, emotional highs and spiritual lows, showing what it means to be human, to feel pain and joy, loss and victory; to know the consequences of your mistakes, and what it feels like to save yourself from yourself, to let love in and put all your faith in someone with no fear.

Isbell, multiple 2016 Grammy winner and former guitarist for Drive-By Truckers, shapes songs out of the things we have all felt: uncontrollable love (“Cover Me Up”), the pressure of passing on something of substance as a father or mother (“Outfit”), being stuck in place you wish was someplace else (“Speed Trap Town”), or the crushing feeling of rejection and loss. (“Songs she Sang in the Shower”)

As a guitarist, lyricist, and musician, Isbell is a man beyond his 38 years.  Emotion, it’s clear, runs deep in the Muscle Shoals, Alabama favorite son.  The South is at the very root of which he is as a person and writer, able to touch something inside those listening; melody, harmony and laying it all out on the table, all things coming together in a way that “country” acts like Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan will never get to experience.

Opening with “Go It Alone” from Here We Rest, Isbell and the 400 Unit rolled out a set that would make fans of all stages of Isbell’s career thankful that they went out into the world on a beautiful Midwestern spring night, to share something with a room full of like-minded music lovers.  If you missed it, if you chose to continue the sedentary life, sticking with what you know, never looking at the next page, playing it safe at home with some ice cream, you missed something special.

Those of us inside that beautiful, nearly century-old theater got a taste of the new record, a rougher, bigger, more rock influenced sound with “Cumberland Gap,” the beautifully haunted, sorrowful playing and tone of “If We We’re Vampires.”  There was the pull-yourself-up motivation of “Hope the High Road,” as well as the Drive-by Truckers classic story song, the title track from the 2003 album Decoration Day.

Isbell and the 400 Unit gave it all they had on that stage, leaving behind everything for us to contemplate, carrying on the tradition of blurring the lines between country and rock like Uncle Tupelo, Gram Parsons, Gene Clark, Rick Nelson, The Bottlerockets, and the Allman Brothers before them.  Leaving into that Missouri night, I was happy down to my soul, gone to ponder and count the days until Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit bring the show back to town.

I know I’ll be there. (Isbell will be touring throughout June and July, starting June 12 in Asheville. Dates at his website.)

Setlist:

Go it Alone

Stockholm

24 Frames

Something More than Free

Decoration Day

Flagship

Codeine

How to Forget

Cumberland Gap

Alabama Pines

Outfit

Speed Trap Town

If it Takes a Lifetime

Cover Me Up

Super 8

If We Were Vampires

Flying Over Water

Never Gonna Change

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