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Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: Another Ryman Tour de Force


“Let’s see if we can turn a Sunday night into a Saturday night,” Jason Isbell told his band. Then they did.


What a pleasure to catch a great artist at the top of his game. Or should I say, a great band at the tops of its game.


Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit wrapped up their annual 8-day residency at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville Sunday, and we were lucky to snag two seats. When we first saw Isbell two years ago, it was also on the last show of the residency. Maybe we’re on to something, as both shows were great. Then again, I can’t say I’ve heard any complaints around town from earlier nights.


Jason Isbell is the reigning king of Americana country music. But his shows feel more like the tight, greasy southern rock from the early 70s. If you closed your eyes during a several-minute dual solo from Isbell and co-lead guitarist Sadler Vaden, you might have imagined Duane Allman and Dicky Betts at the Fillmore, harmonizing up and down the neck and trading licks.


The fact that the 400 Unit even has a guitarist as capable as Vaden says something about Isbell’s commitment to a big sound. An unapologetic and talented guitar shredder himself, it would have been understandable for him to choose a merely capable rhythm player for his band. But Vaden could take the lead guitar in any group. He named his son Townsend, for Pete’s sake. And he always seems to throw a few windmill power chords into the show. But instead of taking the spotlight away from Isbell, he seems to elevate him.



It helps that the rest of the band is so strong, of course. Long-time 400 Unit players Chad Gamble (drums) and Derry deBorja (keyboards) were as tight as ever. And while regular 400 Unit bassist Jimbo Hart is on hiatus, dealing with personal health issues, Australian-born, L.A.-based Anna Butterss (yes, that is spelled correctly) filled in nicely. Also joining is Will Johnson, who seemed squeezed into the back of the stage playing various instruments, including guitar and extra drums.


Missing from the Sunday line-up was Amanda Shires, Isbell’s wife and longtime collaborator. She plays violin with the 400 Unit when she isn’t pursuing her own career. (Here's a taste of her latest record, which is recommended listening.) Although a microphone to Isbell’s right was set up for someone, presumably her, it went unused. If you haven’t watched the documentary about Isbell – which is really a documentary about Isbell and Shires – I recommend it.


It was nice to see that his new material from this year’s “Weathervanes” feels right at home in an already strong catalogue.


The show started with “The King of Oklahoma,” about a working man lost down the well-worn path of injury, opiods, and despair.


“Doctor took a quick look

And I got out the checkbook And left with a pocket full of pills Now my back's still hurtin'

And I'm too weak for workin' And I can't keep up with all the bills


She used to wake me up with coffee ever morning And I'd hear her homemade house shoes slide across the floor She used to make me feel like the king of Oklahoma But nothing makes me feel like much of nothing anymore”


Isbell, a recovering alcoholic and addict, isn’t afraid to write about his own demons. It’s his wheelhouse, in fact. And in “When We Were Close” he remembers the late Justin Townes Earle, his friend. Earle, the son of singer-songwriter Steve Earle, died at 38 from an accidental drug overdose in 2020. Isbell’s song is the lament of the guilty survivor.


“I saw a picture of you laughing with your child And I hope she will remember how you smiled But she probably wasn't old enough, the night somebody sold you stuff That left you on the bathroom tiles


Got a picture of you dying in my mind With some ghosts you couldn't bear to leave behind But I can hear your voice ring as you snap another B-string And you finish off the set with only five And for a minute there, you're still alive


I was the worst of the two of us But Rex's Blues wasn't through with us You were bound for glory and grown to die Oh, but why wasn't I? Why wasn't I?”


One of the more powerful arrangements came on Isbell’s “Cover Me Up.” He and the band walked off stage after a jammy version of “Miles,” from the new album. Then Isbell came back alone, with an acoustic guitar. As he worked his way through the first notes and verses of the ominous and romantic song, band members returned to the stage one by one and joined in, adding musical weight.


“A heart on the run Keeps a hand on a gun Can't trust anyone I was so sure What I needed was more Tried to shoot out the sun The days when we raged, we flew off the page Such damage was done But I made it through, 'cause somebody knew I was meant for someone


So, girl, leave your boots by the bed We ain't leaving this room 'Til someone needs medical help Or the magnolias bloom It's cold in this house and I ain't going out to chop wood So cover me up and know you're enough To use me for good”


I’m probably including too many song lyrics in this post. But the lyrics are too good. They are what draws you to Isbell’s music in the first place. The live concerts are where the music steps to the front.


Go see this band.


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1 Comment


Robin Kollman
Robin Kollman
Oct 30, 2023

Excellent review, John. I'm going to watch the HBO documentary and hit up their music on a stream. Thanks so much for expanding my musical world.

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