LIVE: Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit @ The Egg, 5/22/15

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit

Review by Greg Haymes
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk

Memorial Day is more than just an extra day off from work or an afternoon to fire up the grill and welcome summer…

Kicking off the big Memorial Day weekend at The Egg’s Hart Theatre, singer-songwriter Jason Isbell honored those who have served in our armed forces with a terrific triptych of tunes early on in his two-hour show. With his solid but unobtrusive four-piece backing band, the 400 Unit, slamming into arena-rock assault mode, Isbell launched into the delicate balance of honor and hostility in “Decoration Day” from his days with the Drive By Truckers, digging in and turning up the heat with a fiery slide guitar solo. “Tour of Duty” showcased the country twang aspect of the band, while “Dress Blues” was a personal and anguished remembrance of a young soldier and father-to-be, who didn’t live to see his 22nd birthday. “There’s red, white and blue in the rafters/And there’s silent old men from the Corps/What did they say when they shipped you away/To fight somebody’s Hollywood war?”

Perhaps Isbell plays those songs every night when he’s out on tour, but they echoed and ached with a deeper resonance on this night.

He rightfully built the bulk of his show around the superb songs from his 2012 breakthrough album, Southeastern, which won him Album of the Year, Song of the Year and Artist of the Year honors at the prestigious Americana Music Awards, stretching out on the encores from the intimate “Elephant” – accompanied only by keyboardist Derry duBorja – to the raucous rock ‘n’ roll romp of “Super 8.” Led by guitarist Sadler Vaden over the firm foundation of bassist Jimbo Hart and drummer Chad Gamble, the band beefed up the sound, offering considerably more muscular support than is heard on the album. At times – especially during Drive By Truckers’ “Never Gonna Change’ – they sounded more than a bit like Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers.

In addition, Isbell offered a sneak peak at his upcoming album, “Something More Than Free,” playing “24 Frames” and “Speed Trap Town,” as well as the title track, all proving that Southeastern was no fluke.

Craig Finn – best known as the frontman for the rollicking band, the Hold Steady – offered a completely different aspect of his talents with a solid solo set of mostly new, character-driven narrative songs – notably his closing “Dennis and Billy” and the 9/11 remembrance “Newmyer’s Roof” – that were as much short stories set to music as they were pop songs.

Excerpt from Michael Hochanadel’s review at The Daily Gazette: “This was no ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ to some sentimentalized southland. On Friday at The Egg, Alabama-born ex-Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell instead made hard-edged, clear-eyed music about rusting, half-abandoned rural America – bypassed by the interstates, by progress and by recovery – where frayed finances fracture families into shards of drugs and violence. Collecting those shards into a mirror, he sang an image of desperation; and it was beautiful. Fronting his muscular country-rocking 400 Unit Isbell sang in a drawl, with the same clarity as his writing. He used small, telling details – ‘Seagrams in a coffee cup,’ ‘another drunk daddy with a white man’s point of view’ – to conjure whole rooms, double-wides, fading towns. Dismayingly, however, some seemed to misunderstand on Friday; hooting as if to praise racism (‘Different Days’), even serial murder (‘Live Oak’) – because the polished surface of the music was so compelling.”

Flying Over Water
Decoration Day (Drive By truckers)
Go It Alone
Tour of Duty
Dress Blues
24 Frames
Different Days
Live Oak
Alabama Pines
Traveling Alone
Speed Trap Town
Cover Me Up
Relatively Easy
Something More Than Free
Never Gonna Change (Drive By Truckers)
Outfit (Drive By Truckers)
Super 8 Motel

Modesto Is Not That Sweet
Western Pier
Dudes From St. Paul
Certain Songs (the Hold Steady)
Newmyer’s Roof
Dennis and Billy

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
Jason Isbell
Jason Isbell
Craig Finn
Craig Finn

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