in performance: jason isbell and the 400 unit

jason isbell. photo by allison v. smith.

jason isbell. photo by allison v. smith.

What you noticed once Jason Isbell cranked into Down in the Hole early into his two-hour set last night at The Dame was how alert everything sounded.

First came the clarity.  It began in the narrative nature of his songs, like the portrait of deep loss that surrounded Chicago Promenade, and extended to a refreshingly crisp sound mix where keyboards and vocals – typically, the first victims of muddy sound – were as vivid as the songs themselves.

Then there was the functionally of the guitar sound. Isbell hails from the Muscle Shoals region of Alabama. As such, the soul and vintage rock inspirations of the area played more into his music than tired Southern rock stereotypes. Seven Mile Island, for instance, meshed slide guitar with a fat, joyous Bo Diddley beat while the gradual, anthemic build of The Last Song I Will Write late into the program was a reward for audience and artist alike after an hour’s worth of efficient, emotive rockers like Soldiers Get Strange and Streetlights that stated their case cleanly and moved on in under five minutes.

What was especially curious, though, was the close allegiance Isbell still holds to the Drive-By Truckers, the far harder Southern ensemble the guitarist and singer bolted from two years ago. Isbell raided the Truckers pantry several times last night for more severe guitar rockers like Outfit and Never Gonna Change.

But perhaps the biggest surprise was the inclusion of The Assassin, a literally murderous song from Trucker Patterson Hood’s 2005 solo album Killers and Stars. Sure, Isbell came off as way too good natured a performer last night to bring all of the tune’s venom to the surface. But then again, it followed a cover of Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer with 400 Unit guitarist Browan Lollar handling the vocal lead. Simultaneously creepy and playful, the tunes were right at home along the light and dark streets of the luminous South that Isbell so exactly brought to life.



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