There’s a spectrum where many musicians fall when they perform live. On one end, they can further their mythology by putting on a larger-than-life show with big lights, pyrotechnics, and massive sound and visual arrangements that seek to elevate the act to something otherworldly. The concert version of a Marvel movie.
On the other end, a flesh and blood person, stripped of studio production tricks and stage theatrics exposes their art and talents (for better or worse). In some circumstances the best musicians can wring the emotions out of their songs when you see them live.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit performed last night at the PNC Pavilion. Every time they come through Cincy, either playing Riverbend or the Taft, they put on an exceptional show with enough staging to show they are a force, yet still focusing on drawing out all the raw emotion Mr. Isbell puts into his words and the sounds of his songs.
However, you define Mr. Isbell as a songwriter; Alt-Country, Americana, or Southern-Rock, the labels all lose necessity when you see him and the 400 Unit live. They came out strong stringing together Hope the High Road, 24 Frames and Go It Alone. As great as the band was, the 400 Unit’s fiddle player and backing vocalist, Amanda Shires was missing. The immediate reaction was disappointment. The secondary reaction, how is Mr. Isbell going to perform some his best songs without her?
Before the audience could reflect on the potential disappointment for too long, the band performed an electric version of Anxiety. The 400 Unit was not going to let Ms. Shires absence work as an excuse for a subpar set.
What they lack in theatrics and presence (they are not as big with a capital ‘B’ as the original lineup of the E Street Band; or as familiar and broken in as The Heartbreakers)—they more than make up for with competence. Pure musical competence can seem in short supply, so you appreciate it that much more when you witness it live.
Jimbo Hart has a way manipulating the volume of his bass when he comes in and out of different songs. Chad Gamble’s drumming feels like it’s a half tic behind... like he’s going to show up late, but he comes in at just the right time and the footwork with his high hat is something very few rock drummers attempt, muchless master. Early songs in the set featured a great sound mix highlighting Dery DeBorja piano and organ. He has a way of making all the songs seem bigger live at just the right moment without every overpowering or distracting the listener.
Sadler Vaden’s slide work on lead guitar is probably the most distinctive sound the band produces. You recognize it immediately. I could be wrong, but I think there was some additional slide work last night in some areas of different songs to make up for Ms. Shires’ missing fiddle. Each member shines at different moments. They deftly go from a bring-down-the-house rockers like Cumberland Gap, to a bring the house lights down for a stripped-down ballad like Elephant.
Mr. Isbell is most comfortable playing his songs; a little less so when bantering with the crowd. He still seems genuinely surprised at times that so many people are coming out to listen to him.
The highlight of any Jason Isbell concert is when his band disappears for few moments and you hear the first few notes of Cover Me Up. Mr. Isbell could write songs for the next 40 years and never equal Cover Me Up. There would be no cause shame. It’s an incredible song that you would never believe could translate live as well as it does…until you hear the slow burn start and ache of remorse of the narrator’s past build into his triumphs of the present. The audience takes the same journey, singing every word with him and wildly cheering this rockstar when he sings, “I sobered up, I swore off that stuff—forever this time.”
Last summer, Mr. Isbell came through town not long after Greg Allman died, the 400 Unit played an absolute monster version ofWhipping Post in tribute. This time around, they went back to a deep cut Drive-By Truckers’ song, Never Gonna Change. It’s a sonic and lyric blunt force trauma with a defiant narrator who is diametrically opposed to the narrator of White Man’s World. The band ripped into this song with an aggression they held back for many of the earlier songs. The dueling guitar solos from Mr. Vadler and Mr. Isbell equaled the extended jams from live Crazy Horse and Skynrd work. The 400 Unit can bring it when they want to. Mr. Isbell will not let you leave his show until he reminds you his guitar work is damn near close to his songwriting. At the end of the song, the 400 Unit paused, but before anyone could catch their breath they launched into a raucous Super 8 Motel.
Mr. Isbell defies convention in many ways. Not satisfied to leave the crowd breathless after two big, loud rock numbers–he came back to the stage and closed with the ballad If We Were Vampires. A stripped-down song with no place to hide, everything bare, out to the crowd to decide where Jason Isbell and 400 Unit land on the concert spectrum.