In performance: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Jason Isbell.

Jason Isbell certainly had time on his side last night as he returned to Buster’s fronting a quartet lineup of his long-running band, 400 Unit.

First off, the Alabama-bred Americana songsmith was fresh off an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman the previous evening. There he performed Outfit, a country-esque rocker about home and humility from his days with Drive-By Truckers that is enjoying a second life as a centerpiece tune on Isbell’s fine new album, Live from Alabama. Last night, the song remained a crowd favorite and was performed as a sing-along, with hands clenching tall boys swaying in the air.

Then there were the maturity and confidence levels that Isbell has reached as a solo artist and the complementary ways in which the 400 Unit – augmented last night by Texas violinist Amanda Shires – addresses his songs. The show-opening Go It Alone, although marred by a muddy sound mix that was quickly corrected, reflected a swampy drive indicative of the Truckers. But on Tour of Duty and Alabama Pines, two very different homecoming stories, the music took decidedly country turns.

There also were strong but streamlined shades of Muscle Shoals soul by way of the Candi Statton hit Heart on a String (which nicely retained its vintage R&B feel despite the absence of the horn section that deliciously dresses up the tune on Live from Alabama) and New Orleans funk with a suitably second line-flavored version of Hey Pocky Way (with 400 Unit drummer Chad Gamble on lead vocals).

The timing also offered a sense of perspective. Granted, much of the 1¾-hour performance was devoted to a present-day artistic portrait of Isbell. But the program was very much at peace with the past. There were five songs from the Truckers days (all taken from the albums Decoration Day and The Dirty South). Among them was the Neil Young-flavored Never Gonna Change, into which Isbell injected a funkified update of Jimi Hendrix’s Stone Free.

The Young inspiration surfaced more literally in a faithful, show-closing reading of his Crazy Horse classic Like a Hurricane. It was as if a blast of cool air soared in from the West Coast and ran smack into Isbell’s distinctly Southern sense of rock and soul. Needless to say, a merry storm ensued.  

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