Review: Jason Isbell and Unit 400 at 713 Music Hall

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Jason Isbell and Unit 400
713 Music Room
July 3, 2022

Homecoming stories aren’t unheard of in music, but few are as dramatic as Jason Isbell’s.

Rising to prominence with the Drive-By Truckers, Isbell’s partying ways were well documented, but it wasn’t until he left to pursue a solo career that threatened to found that he became sober in 2012. And like Stevie Ray Vaughan before him, Isbell proved his best music was on the other side of that event.

This is not intended to diminish his previous work. Isbell’s songs with the DBTs (especially “Decoration Day” and “Outfit”) were some of the band’s best. But I think he would agree that the cleanup paved the way for the clarity and urgency of Something more than free, The sound of Nashvilleand his last — Meetings — recorded with his longtime band 400 Unit.

It wouldn’t be the first time someone had channeled their past destructive addictions into other pursuits. And if you follow Isbell on Instagram, you know he’s constantly trying out new gear and trying out different sounds. And even if you don’t, last night’s opener (“What’ve I Done to Help”) was capped off with what can only be described as a searing guitar solo.

It was one of half a dozen songs on the final album, which means some older favorites were likely squeezed out (no “Codeine”, “Outfit” or “Flying Over Water”, for example). Indeed, the Meetings-the heavy set tended towards introspection, which is always a dicey proposition in Houston. But songs like “Dreamsicle”, “Only Children” and “Overseas” were mostly well received.

It doesn’t hurt that the 400 Unit is a well seasoned outfit. Guitarist Sadler Vaden stood out by taking the mic for a cover of “Honeysuckle Blue,” by his former band, Drivin’ N Cryin’. He also joined Isbell for an acoustic duet version of “Tour of Duty”. But bassist Jimbo Hart, drummer Chad Gamble and keyboardist Derry deBorja were no slouches, firming up what was a tight hour and forty-five minute set.

Click to enlarge

Isbell’s songs require intimacy.

Photo by Violeta Alvarez

Isbell and company were supposed to play The Woodlands last year (believe me, I was supposed to see it again), but the show was canceled when the pavilion failed to implement requested COVID-19 protocols. But there was no mention of it, though he offered opinions on Houston music venues, starting with his appreciation for 713 Music Hall (“They’ve got air conditioning,” wait…maybe being that it was *a dig* at the CWMP) and comparing it favorably to Walter’s in Washington, saying “That place was a good time, it’s a good place.”

Fun fact: Walter’s website is now a Japanese site explaining how to get a driver’s license.

If there was one complaint — aside from the usual (grossly priced beers, screaming fans, the dreaded unease of 2022 American existence) — it was how loaded the hardest stuff was. . “Hope the High Road” became a staple of Isbell’s shows, and it appeared No. 2 on the set list, followed by the raunchy franchise’s sobriety anthem “It Gets Easier.”

But most of the set found him swapping the Gibson SG and Telecaster for the Martin acoustic, leading the crowd in some of the most familiar cuts (*24 Frames, “Last of My Kind”), and offering occasional comments on the accuracy of his songs (these directions on how to get around Talladega in October are apparently correct).

Someone (maybe my wife) commented last night that Jason Isbell was our generation’s Bruce Springsteen. For starters, Springsteen is the Springsteen of our generation. But beyond that, while both are accomplished singer-songwriters, I would argue that Isbell deals with much more personal stories, whereas Springsteen’s stories of desire and disillusionment are conceptually larger.

Jumping to the heart of the discussion, this is why I think Jason Isbell won’t be selling Five Nights at Madison Square Garden any time soon: not because his songs are inferior, but because their intimacy necessarily diminishes their purpose.

It’s the Garden’s loss, honestly.

Personal bias: I still maintain that Isbell’s DBT songs were the best DBT songs.

The crowd: Pretty typical Houston, with all that that entails.

Heard in the crowd: “Sixteen dollars for a bag of beef jerky?” “And it’s not even beef.”

Random notebook dump: “There can’t be more than us…I hope.”

LIST OF SETTINGS
What did I do to help
I hope the high road
It gets easier
24 frames
only children
Run with your eyes closed
Dream
Tupelo
Alabama Pines
Travel alone
Abroad
last of my kind
The life you chose
Honeysuckle Blue (Drivin’ N Cryin’ cover)
Cover me

BIS
duty tower
If we were vampires
decoration day

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