Friday night I attended a friend’s birthday party barbecue. Other than a few girlfriends mixed in, the guests were all of the same ilk, semi-scruffy, low-key, and early to mid 30’s. Content to drink a few beers and shoot the breeze around a backyard bonfire; the night passed by in a satisfying yet uneventful manner. I excused myself halfway through the festivities though, and made my way down the street to the Lincoln Theatre. Jason Isbell and his band the 400 Unit were in town and I did not want to miss their latest tour stop. Taking my spot on the floor stage right, I felt as though I had not left my previously mentioned Friday night party. It seemed I was surrounded by the groups of people I had just left: early to mid 30’s, semi-scruffy, and low-key. When Isbell and his four other band members took the stage, they too resembled the party-goers and fans. I guess I fit nicely into that alternative-country demographic.
Well, that pretty much sets the scene…onto the music. Isbell and 400 Unit blazed through the night with a two and a half hour set fluctuating from shimmering raucous guitar blues, songwriting gems, and shimmering power pop. The band reached back to 2007’s Sirens of the Ditch for the opening two numbers, “Grown” and the bluesy “Try”, which was extended into a swampy ten-minute, guitar soloing stomper. It didn’t take too long for Isbell to bring the crowd to a holler either, as he quickly pulled out some of his hits from his time in the Drive-By Truckers. “Outfit”, “Goddamn Lonely Love”, “Never Gonna Change” and “Decoration Day” were absolutely nailed with the feeling and emotion of the originals, but now delivered with the swagger and confidence of the singer having his own stage to command. Other highlights included “Chicago Promenade”, anchored by Derry deBorja’s keyboards, and “Streetlights”, a heartfelt drinker’s lament, and the best song on Isbell’s most recent self-titled album. There were also a couple outstanding covers. Isbell offered an ode to the recently departed Alex Chilton before the band tore into Big Star’s “When My Baby’s Beside Me”. Shortly thereafter, guitarist Browan Lollar channeled his inner David Byrne as he took over lead vocals on a nervy version of “Pscyho Killer”. Later, Lollar and Isbell opened the encore as a duo and played a great spot-on version of Mark Kozelek’s “Glenn Tipton”. And since a lot of the 400 Unit’s sound owes a debt of gratitude to this man, it was only fitting that they closed the show with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ classic, “American Girl”. A great exclamation point to a great rock show.
Isbell and the band leave next week for Australia where they will be co-headlining with Justin Townes Earle. Hopefully this tour exposes the music to a wider audience and gains him some of the support that he so duly deserves. He also inherited road warrior genes from his previous band so don’t miss out when he soon hits your town.