Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
With James McMurtry
The Bomb Factory, Dallas
January 5, 2018
As Jason Isbell and his band the 400 Units entered the home stretch of their show at The Bomb Factory on Friday, Isbell paused to pay tribute to someone who couldn't be there with him that night: his wife, Amanda Shires. "I wrote this song for her," Isbell said, standing alone on stage in a blue spotlight. "I'll sing it for her whether she's here or not."
Shires — who's in Nashville recording a new album of her own with the man who produced Isbell's The Nashville Sound, Dave Cobb — has been a constant at her husband's side since the tour for that record started last summer. The song that he played, "Cover Me Up," proved to be one of the most inspired of the night, as Isbell's voice cracked with the gravity of his words and the band built to a crashing crescendo.
Had the show taken place as scheduled last September (it was postponed because of a death in the family of bassist Jimbo Hart), Shires would have been a part of it, and her presence was missed Friday night. Her violin playing and harmonies add depth and warmth to Isbell's songs, accentuating a crucial sense of shared intimacy. On The Nashville Sound in particular, that intimacy is at the core of his writing — searching for it, finding it and appreciating it.
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Yet the 18-song set that Isbell and the 400 Unit played in Dallas was inch-perfect all the same, an exercise in expressing the contrasting and sometimes conflicting sides of the Alabama native. Isbell's career has flourished since recovering from an alcohol addiction that got him kicked out of the Drive-By Truckers, his clear-eyed songwriting defined by its razor-sharp focus. His portraits of blue collar struggle and sociopolitical discontent can be unflinching and even withering in their honesty, a fact that's not so surprising for someone who's come back from the brink.
There's a polarity that runs deep in Isbell's work: He's humble but intense, aloof but personal, analytical but deeply emotional. Shires, who was instrumental in helping him get sober, helps further humanize his observations, but in many ways the frailties he writes about are his own. Listen to Isbell's flawless guitar tones and you know immediately that he's a stickler for the details, and if there's anything a perfectionist knows it's their own imperfections.
For Isbell, who was recruited to Drive-By Truckers as a guitarist, his instruments are an extension of himself, and his cavalcade of guitars represent their own sides of his personality. Friday's show started with two of Isbell's biggest hits, "Hope the High Road" and "24 Frames," which featured some scorching guitar work and a particularly fiery slide solo. Much of the middle portion of the set, however, was grounded in his acoustic playing — although on "Last of My Kind" he still couldn't help rocking out, strumming furiously and pacing the stage as the song stretched into a jam.
"Last of My Kind" was one of the show's centerpieces, and also one of the handful of songs that got the otherwise respectfully silent crowd to whoop their approval. Lines in other songs about being a father and getting sober proved similarly popular, all of which was telling enough for a crowd that skewed both white and middle age. Not that those lines were all meant as crowd pleasers: Songs like "Last of My Kind" or "White Man's World" may be written from a white male perspective, but Isbell — never losing sight of a fan base that's rooted in country and Americana music — is intent on critiquing that perspective as much as articulating it.
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Even when Isbell's not making explicit social commentary, he tends to harbor a subversive streak. "Codeine," for instance, was the most uptempo song of the night, with a sing-along melody worthy of "Wagon Wheel," yet its dark lyrics belied the joyous tone of the music. A couple songs later, Isbell cracked the whole thing wide open, finishing the main set with a ferocious cover of his old band's "Never Gonna Change," which saw him and fellow guitarist Sadler Vaden go full-on Lynyrd Skynyrd with a soaring, finger-tapping dual solo.
If that wasn't enough, the night ended — after a tender version of "If We Were Vampires" that would normally be a showcase with his wife — with another little act of rebellion, an unapologetic cover of Tom Petty's "American Girl." "I'm sure you can hear this in bars all around town tonight," Isbell said. "But I don't give a damn. I like it a whole lot."
Hope the High Road
White Man's World
Last of My Kind
Something More Than Free
Cover Me Up
It It Takes a Lifetime
Never Gonna Change
If We Were Vampires