Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit Bring Their Rich Nashville Sound to Connecticut

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit

College Street Music Hall

New Haven, Connecticut

June 26, 2017

 

 

The evolution of a true musician during the rise of a career has always been interesting to me. There are highs and lows, risks and experimentations, criticism and awards.  In the unique case of Jason Isbell, it seems like he has found his home, his star is on the rise, and he has never been happier.  I say this because anyone who compares his older songs to the newest album, The Nashville Sound, can see has his lyrics have changed.  His past songs are of pain and struggle, as the once full on rocker for the Drive By Truckers was in full on party mood on stage and off. But as his solo career has progressed, and he has found comfort in family (and sobriety), his music has hit its stride.  The attention to lyrics, the dedication to his art, and the richness of the instrumentality (aided by the genius of producer extraordinaire Dave Cobb) have taken Jason Isbell to new and great heights.  And this has never been more prevalent on the new album, as he takes on themes such as politics, racism, and mortality.

 

 

And last night, he brought his show the College Street Music Hall in New Haven, Connecticut, where he has played (and I have attended) three years in a row. This time, a large emblem of an anchor with a bird, which changed colors throughout the set, was draped in the background.  I believe this emblem is also tattooed on the biceps of both Isbell and his wife, Amanda Shires (more about her in a moment).  Anxiety was the first song played and the sound of Isbell and his 400 Unit Band has never sounded better. The guitars and bass boomed off of the large speakers and the solo’s soared before and after the powerful lyrics.  Just like that, they were off and running, mixing in songs off the new album, as well the past two, Something More Than Free and Southeastern.  This set was very different from past sets as songs from his early solo career, mainstays like “Dress Blues” or “Alabama Pines” were omitted, but a few Drive By Truckers songs (“Decoration Day”, “Never Gonna Change”) were still part of the show.

What really stood out to me this time around was the sheer happiness that Jason showcased. He spent time laughing and making jokes (at one point stated “I don’t want to be a country singer, I wanted to sing rock n roll” as he broke into the guitar wailing “Cumberland Gap”).  He also discussed being happy about having the #4 album on the charts and joked about being able to beat Nickleback in sales. He also showcased his loving side, as the two most moving portions of the show involved simply he and his wife. During “Cover Me Up”, he, at one point, turned himself almost entirely around to sing the lyrics directly to her and spoke about how much it means to him to be able to sing this song her wrote for her, to her every night (see Video clip).  And again, the two of them went acoustic on the moving “If We Were Vampires”, which, in my opinion, should have consideration for the Grammy for Song of the Year.

His wife, Amanda Shires, is as beautiful as she is talented, wielding a classically trained fiddle with a wonderful voice aiding in background vocals. All done while wearing huge black heels and a flashy skirt.  If you haven’t checked out her solo album, My Piece of Land, you are missing out.  Amanda Shires is not to be ignored as she is a true force of her own and a real part of the Jason Isbell & 400 Unit live show.

 

 

I must comment on how upset I was with the College Street Music Hall this time around. Usually I applaud them for having an intimate venue, with great staff and full on comfort.  It seems that they completely oversold on tickets, as my wife and I were kicked out of where we were standing an astounding seven times within the first five songs (7 in 5!).  The staff was pushy, aggressive and downright rude to us and other concertgoers.  Finally, we decided to just walk upstairs and watch from the last row in the venue, which happened to be a relaxing and very different experience as we were able to take in the true richness of the show and sound.  But, above all, (and I cannot say it enough) check out Jason Isbell’s show and music as often as you can. The dedication to his art is well conceived and masterfully executed in every aspect, creating as rich of a sound as you will hear in any genre of music today.

SETLIST:

 

  1. Anxiety
  2. Something More Than Free
  3. Hope the High Road
  4. 24 Frames
  5. Decoration Day
  6. White Man’s World
  7. Chaos and Clothes
  8. Cumberland Gap
  9. Molotov
  10. The Life You Chose
  11. Last of My Kind
  12. Stockholm
  13. Flying Over Water
  14. Cover Me Up
  15. If It Takes a Lifetime
  16. Children of Children
  17. Never Gonna Change
  18. If We Were Vampires
  19. Super 8

 

Video

Jason Isbell is Masterful at College Street Music Hall

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Jason Isbell – College Street Music Hall – New Haven, CT – 7/22/15

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Last night, I had the pleasure of attending the Jason Isbell concert at the pristine College Street Music Hall in New Haven, Connecticut and ended up witnessing one of the best shows I’ve seen in years.  I unfortunately missed the opening act, Blake Mills, but got there a few minutes before Isbell took to the stage.  I found my way to the left side of the front pit and settled in for what I expected to a great night of music.  However, my expectations were blown out of the water with the live vocal presence of Isbell, as well as the true artistry he and his band, The 400 Unit, displayed throughout the night.

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It took him no time to get going into some of my favorite songs from his catalogue.  He kicked things off with the funky “Palmetto Rose” and quickly transitioned into the folky “Stockholm” followed by his new single, “24 Frames”.  All three opening songs truly displayed the diversity that Jason Isbell has to offer.  What I did not expect was the exceptional skill that he possesses with the guitar.  He seemingly changed guitars each song with a more impressive one after another.  And the guitar riffs, solo’s, and jam outs were plentiful and masterfully executed.

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And there was no lull to the show as he kept the crowd guessing what he was going to perform next.  Whether it was the accordion backed bluegrassy “Codeine” or the impressive acoustic performance of the award winning “Cover Me Up”, the show was a rollercoaster of emotions, with the real star being the honest lyrics that Isbell creates.  It was very clear to me last night that Jason Isbell may, in fact, be the best musical storyteller of this generation.  From the sad military ballad, “Dress Blues”, which Zac Brown Band covered on their Jekyll + Hyde album, to the angry “Decoration Day” to the clever and witty “If It Takes a Lifetime”, there was truly no topic that Isbell could not make his lyrics connect with the crowd.

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The almost two hour set concluded with one of my least favorite songs, “Super 8”, but that did not bother me at all because the entire night was truly so impressive.  The overall setlist included songs spanning his entire career, including several songs from his time singing lead vocals for the Drive-by-Truckers.  Most of his new album Something More Than Free was also performed flawlessly and had concert goers flocking to the merch table to get their hands on some autographed copies.  All in all, my expectations were surpassed and has made Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit a must see act each and every time they will come back to the Northeast.

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SETLIST:

  1. Palmetto Rose
  2. Stockholm
  3. 24 Frames
  4. Dress Blues
  5. Decoration Day
  6. Codeine
  7. Different Days
  8. Traveling Alone
  9. If It Takes a Lifetime
  10. The Life You Chose
  11. How To Forget
  12. Speed Trap Town
  13. Cover Me Up
  14. Children of Children
  15. Alabama Pines
  16. Elephant
  17. Something More Than Free
  18. Never Gonna Change
  19. Goddamn Lonely Love (ENCORE)
  20. Outfit (ENCORE)
  21. Super 8 (ENCORE)