Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit: 2022 Tour [Concert Review]

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Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit w/ Adia VictoriaPalace Theatre; Columbus, OH; Thursday, January 27, 2022

For live music fans, one of the biggest challenges of the on-going pandemic has been the shut-down of concerts, but Jason Isbell repeatedly told the two-thirds full crowd in Columbus’ Palace Theatre Thursday night that he and his band, the 400 Unit, missed playing for an audience just as much as we did. But this concert had originally been scheduled for Sunday, Jan. 16, and was postponed when it was reported that he had caught a breakthrough infection with the virus. And while the audience had to show proof of vaccination and masks were required, Isbell said he was happy to be playing again for his fans.

After that quick introduction, Isbell and his fine backing band, including his wife Amanda Shires on fiddle, launched into the opening track of the 2022 release, Reunions, “What Have I Done to Help,” with most of the band singing the vocal harmonies. Isbell started the song on acoustic guitar, but as the arrangement stretched out, with a brief bass solo by Jimbo Hart followed by a turn by Shires on violin, during which the singer/songwriter switched to a Gibson SG and took a smart melodic slides solo. They moved quickly into the big electric power chords that open “Hope the High Road,” with second guitarist Sadler Vaden emphasizing the rock song staples with Pete Townshend windmills, indicating as Isbell had said, this band came to rock.

Isbell moved to a Strat for “Overseas,” with its repeated refrain that “our love won’t change a thing,” and lyric about the distance he experienced when his wife is off touring to support her own albums, that ironically benefitted from her harmony vocals, and elicited another lengthy slide solo from Isbell. For “24 Frames,” Isbell moved to a Telecaster, with Vaden playing the fills and main slide guitar solo on a Rickenbacker. Isbell often gets categorized as Americana or country rock, but as he dove into the catchy vocal hook of “It Gets Easier,” a song that deals with the struggle of an alcoholic to stay sober, it’s clear that he writes songs with big, organic pop melodies. And here, Shire’s fiddle shines through as well, and stood out as well on Isbell’s “Letting You Go,” a song about their daughter, who Isbell said was watching from the wings of the stage. Vaden was playing a slide solo on an SG, and Isbell egged him on, saying “c’mon Sadler.”

Isbell & his fine band of players had settled into a nice groove, all playing with a mix of skill and intensity as the emotions in the music called for it, but things stepped up a notch on “Decoration Day,” a song dating back to Isbell’s days with Drive-By Truckers, which built from to the intense rocker with Isbell talking a slide solo and Vaden delivering a fast, ripping electric response on a Gibson Les Paul. For balance then, they turned to the acoustic ballad “The Last of My Kind,” which allowed the keyboards of Derry DeBorja and Shire’s violin to shine through, and a fun call and response between Vaden playing slide on a Strat and Shire matching him lick for lick.

Isbell next introduced songs from a covers album, Georgia Blue, all songs by that state, with proceeds going to protect the right to vote. First up was R.E.M.’s “Nightswimming,” with Isbell on acoustic doing a fairly strong approximation of Michael Stipes voice, emphasizing the song’s accessible melody even more than the original recording. Then Vedar sang lead and played the dominant lead guitar on a rockin’ version of “Honeysuckle Blue,” by Drivin’ ‘n’ Cryin’s Kevin Kenney. Then as if to play a song from Isbell’s own home state, the offered up “Alabama Pines,” the only song they played from the 2011 album, “Here We Rest.” Which they followed with a tender version of “Elephant,” about the passing of a cancer patient, Isbell on acoustic, with DeBorja’s piano and Shire’s violin adding to the song’s delicate delivery.

Then, as if to shake off the somber demons, they dived into the fun, “Super 8,” with that great line “Don’t wanna die in a Super 8 motel/Just because somebody’s evening didn’t go so well.” At this point, it was pretty clear to me that the 400 Unit, many members like Isbell coming from Muscle Shoals Alabama, is one of the best live bands working today, each player quite exceptional on their chosen instruments. And as if to demonstrate their versatility, they played the acoustic leaning “Only Children,” with Vaden on acoustic and Isbell playing a Strat solo that captured the guitar sound and tone of Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits.

Next, Isbell invited Amanda Shires to sing the lead on “Cross Bones Style,” a shouter by Cat Power that she recorded with the band on Georgia Blue. Then, to celebrate their relationship and show his appreciation to have her back playing live with the 400 Unit, they gave another gentle, intimate rendering of “If We Were Vampires,” his acoustic ballad, a defiant love song that faces down mortality, that sounded appropriately moody and haunted. Then picking things up musically, but continuing that married life theme, the band delivered the big rocker, “Stockholm.” Then for the acoustic opening of “The River,” most of the band left the stage, just Isbell on acoustic and Shires on harmony vocal and violin, until Vaden joins in on slide guitar and the rest of the band slowly joins in as the song builds to a soaring slide solo. They closed the set with “Cover Me Up,” with Isbell alone playing the acoustic ballad, much like the performance on Live From the Ryman, which builds toward the end with the full band and Shires joining in.

When they returned for the encores, Isbell talked briefly about how great it was to be at a point in his career where he could name an artist he loved listening to and they’d come out and open for him, by way of re-introducing Adia Victoria, who sang her song from the Georgia Blue, album “The Truth,” originally recorded by Precious Bryant, with a rustic, back country blues feel. And then, as if to say, “hey, we could play all night,” the band slowly eased into “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” written by Dickey Betts of The Allman Bros. Band, starting with the jazzy intro, locking into the classic double lead harmony guitar melody, best played by Betts and the late Duane Allman. And the 400 Unit dug in and sought to give the blues rock classic its due, with Vaden and Isbell playing those classic runs together, then Vaden taking a long solo on a Les Paul, followed by De Borja giving his Hammond B3 a Gregg Allman workout, and finally Isbell closing out on his SG, before pulling things back together to repeat that signature double lead outro and allow drummer Chad Gamble a brief solo, the song altogether lasting at least 15 minutes of classic blues rock nostalgia. As someone who spent way too many teenage hours absorbing “Live at the Fillmore East,” Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit did it up just fine. A great conclusion to a fine evening of live music.

Adia Victoria and her three-piece support band – bass and drums and lead electric guitar – delivered a strong opening set, drawing largely on her latest album, A Southern Gothic. Playing older vintage acoustic guitars, she opened with “Far From Dixie,” while her guitarist and the band laid down an echo-laden haunted vibe that served her songs spirit well. First introduced to the music of classic bluesmen, Victoria said they always sang about some “Mean-Hearted Woman,” but they never explained what broke her heart and made her so mean. To introduce “Magnolia Blues,” she quoted her producer T Bone Burnett, who said she never needed to explain herself to the audience, her job was to make them feel something. After playing two more from here third album – “Whole World Knows” and “My Oh My” – Victoria put down her guitar to deliver the dark narrative of “Troubled Mind,” which her band extended with a bluesy psychedelic feel that segued into “Different Kind of Love,” which she picked up a tambourine and shook it to the throbbing beat. She closed her solid set with “South Gotta Change,” a message that speaks for itself.

Brian Q. Newcomb
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