TEXT/PHOTOS BY DANNY R. PHILLIPS
I’ll be upfront with you from the start: Jason Isbell isn’t my typical choice of concert. I grew up a child of amplifiers, pounding drums and being pissed off to no end. One day, a friend gave me a copy of Jason’s 2013 release Southeastern. What I heard was a man full of heartache, demons, soul and perseverance.
Never being a fan of The Drive-by Truckers, I was sadly unfamiliar with Isbell’s work with the band or solo. I came late to the party but I’m glad I decided to attend the Feb. 17 show at the Uptown Theater. With songs like “Live Oak,” “Elephant” and “Songs that She Sang in the Shower,” Isbell showed me, and the music-loving world, that he is quite possibly, the best young songwriter going today.
So, when my chance to catch Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit in Kansas City, I made damned sure I was in the crowd; I had to hear these songs and his many, many others first hand, with an audience excited as I. I was not disappointed. Isbell and crew brought a show that was moving, exciting, rockin’ and to put it blunt and honest, absolutely fucking great.
The crowd inside the Uptown was a cross-section of society and a testament to Isbell’s appeal to lovers of lyrical content and blazing guitar work. Young professionals worn tired from chasing the dollar, card carrying members of AARP, college kids clueless to what life had in store for them, hipsters with handlebar moustaches and tweed blazers (seemingly staring at the stage more than their phones), soccer moms long past their prime and rockers dreaming of their misspent youth: all sat together as Isbell tore through song after song, often moving many in the crowd to tears and cheers alike.
Opening the show was Southeastern’s “Stockholm,” a story of man wanting nothing more than to get home to his girl, and it blew out of the gate with a fullness and power only hinted at on record. “Flying Over Water” had a stronger, more powerful punch thanks the double guitar attack of Isbell and Sadler Vader. “Decoration Day,” a track Isbell wrote while with The Truckers, tells of a bloody feud between the Hills and the Lawsons, came to life as if the war was unfolding on the stage, while “Songs She Sang in the Shower” visibly shook some awestruck crowd members.
While all the songs successfully hit their intended marks, “Live Oak”, “Dress Blues”, “Elephant” and “Yvette” (a tale of a father’s improprieties with this daughter and a classmate making it right) clearly struck some to their very core. “Live Oak,” about a former sinner trying to forget his past and the woman attracted to his wickedness, brought long gazes and applause, while “Elephant,” the sad tale of a cancer patient spending her last days with a buddy, drinking whiskey, smoking weed and telling stories, brought an audible gasp when Isbell let the final note ring.
“Outfit,” an obvious audience favorite, is a father telling his son what it takes to stay true to who you are, how to love your family and how southern men tell better jokes. It brought laughs, cheers and wolf whistles.
The band left the stage but came out once more to encore with “Super 8,” a musical tip of the hat to Dan Baird and The Georgia Satellites, and The Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’” from the classic Sticky Fingers album; ultimate, Isbell and The 400 Unit put a perfect end to a nearly spotless performance. It may seem like I’m gushing, perhaps overly so, but it is deserved here. Isbell is a true talent, one that doesn’t come to the world often. If he comes to your town, buy a ticket and take the ride with one of the truest, most genuine talents I have seen in all my 40 years on this goddamned rock.