Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Bowery Ballroom – 12/7
Towards the end of a raucous set at New York’s Bowery Ballroom, Jason Isbell dove into story time before playing “Outfit,” a song he wrote with his former band, the Drive By Truckers. While introducing the song, Isbell recounted one particularly aggressive fan that pushed and shoved his way to the front where spent the entire night howling incessantly for “Outfit.” As Jason reassured Bowery’s crowd, “Of course we’re gonna play it, we play it every fucking night.” They did play it, and we loved it. But the truth is, 5+ years and three studio albums into a solo career, Isbell’s solo work has blossomed to the point where fans could still leave happy even if – gasp – he declined to play “Outfit.” Though he did not shy away from his most beloved Truckers tunes, Isbell has progressively crept further and further out from behind the large shadow cast by that band’s legacy, and in fact his solo song “Codeine” drew an even more frenzied and enthusiastic crowd response than “Outfit.”
Though Isbell’s first two solo albums were solid if unspectacular affairs, his latest, Here We Rest, brought more focused songwriting and a more countrified and slightly sleeker musical style. He even captured an Americana Music Award, for song of the year no less, but during his Bowery Ballroom show, most traces of Americana and country were quickly forced into submission by the pummeling assault of rock and roll unleashed by his band. They may have opened with the relatively gentle country rock of “Tour of Duty,” but things immediately strayed into heavier territory. Isbell’s burning ballad with the Truckers, “Decoration Day,” came next and featured stinging slide and near-metal shredding from Jason.
Another Truckers’ favorite, “Goddamn Lonely Love” was also played early in the set, and the desperate barroom ballad showcased Isbell’s soulful vocals before culminating in more guitar fireworks. Overshadowed as a guitarist in the three-guitar attack of the Truckers, and even in earlier days of the 400 Unit when they featured dual guitars, Isbell’s guitar is now front and center, driving the band. Whether it was climactic solos, the thunderous “No Quarter” riffage he threw in the middle of his own “Try,” or crunchy rhythmic work on a cover of “Heart on a String,” his playing simply felt just right. Bassist Jimbo Hart seemed to benefit equally from the increased space that having only one guitar opened up, sometimes leaping around the rhythm with creative fills. He and drummer Chad Gamble locked into an impressive groove on The Meters’ funk anthem “Hey Pocky Way,” and Hart’s tone had grown to a deafening rumble by the time they launched into heavy rocker “Ain’t Never Gonna Change.”
After a crowd sing-along on “Codeine,” Isbell returned for a lengthy encore starting with his magical tribute to The Band and life on the road, “Danko/Manuel.” “Cigarettes & Wine,” another poignant but plodding ballad, followed and sent a few fans flocking for the exits. But Isbell rewarded those who stayed with one last burst of crazed rock and roll power, covering Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane” with reckless abandon. Backed by a band equally comfortable in hard rock, soul ballads and down home Americana, Isbell’s vivid storytelling and welcoming Alabama drawl has never sound better.