Two-time Grammy Award winner Jason Isbell and his backing band the 400 Unit returned to the Berglund Performing Arts Theatre last night. On a stage immaculately lit, with a beautifully balanced sound system, the atmosphere was set for an intimate evening with the singer-songwriter. The music was a blend of acoustic Americana, southern rockabilly jams, and some harder-edge classic rock ‘ roll, all of which showcased Isbell’s gripping vocal qualities.
The 100-minute set was comprised mostly of songs from Isbell’s two most recent solo albums, “Southeastern” (2013) and “Something More Than Free” (2015), opening the show with “Stockholm” and later performing such hits as “Cover Me Up,” “Different Days,” “24 Frames,” “Speed Trap Town,” and “Super 8.”
Much of Isbell’s success as a singer-songwriter comes from his ability to create complex compositions filled with harrowing lyrics and emotion. Isbell writes about himself, honestly, openly, and brutally, without holding back. His brilliant, yet accessible, songs cover universal topics of loss, loneliness, and love, and his personal struggles with addiction and the substance abuse that held a powerful grip on him in his early career. That early career included a six-year stint as lead guitarist and a principle songwriter for the Drive-By Truckers.
The evening performance previewed several songs off the band’s upcoming album “The Nashville Sound,” as well as a couple of songs written and performed during those years with the Drive-By Truckers. The new album, scheduled for release June 16th, delivers a heavier dose of rock than the award-winning “Something More than Free.”
Throughout the night, Isbell provided lots of love to his backing band, the 400 Unit, a name derived from the colloquial term for the psychiatric ward of a hospital located in Florence, Alabama, located in the Muscle Shoals region where Isbell and many of the band members claim roots. The band features former Drivin’ and Cryin’ member Sadler Vaden on guitar, Derry deBorja, formerly of Son Volt on keys, Jimbo Hart on bass and Chad Gamble on drums.
In true singer-songwriter fashion, Isbell was engaging and jovial with the audience, even pointing out the differences between singer-songwriters and other musical performers, impersonating what it might have been like had Michael Jackson introduced himself between songs. “Hi, I’m Michael Jackson and this song is called Beat It”. Isbell joked that sometimes he likes to rewrite history that way, before launching into “The Life You Chose” followed by “Traveling Alone,” two songs that include deliberate lyrical repetition to deepen the audience’s understanding of the music.
The three-song encore opened with “If We Were Vampires,” a slower ballad from the new album, that speaks to the mortality of life and marriage, and that eventually one of the lovers is left behind. Two rock songs completed the evening, “Flying Over Water,” and “Never Gonna Change,” which featured plenty of Isbell’s and Vaden’s intricate guitar skills.
From here, Isbell and the 400 Unit play a handful of shows in early May before embarking on an intense six-month American and European tour to promote their new album. That tour kicks off June 17th in Asheville, NC, followed by a show in Raleigh.
Before leaving the stage last night Isbell promised an eventual return, stating, “See y’all real soon!”