Review: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit is a country band that plays rock concertsBy Ellen Johnson | 01/21/2018 10:07pm
Though a self-pronounced denouncer of most modern, country music, I once attended a country show. There, a troop of mostly passé country artists, including singer John Conlee and vocal group The Whites – known for their track "Keep on the Sunny Side" from "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" – performed to a crowd of primarily tourists at the famed Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn. There was stomping. The performers wore muddied, embroidered boots as they crooned into that recognizable Opry mic stand. Dolly Parton was referenced. Knees were slapped. It was the perfect recipe for the prototypical country concert.
Jason Isbell, and his band the 400 Unit, are also proclaimed country performers. But their show on Friday night at the Alabama Theatre in Birmingham was nothing like the one I attended in the Music City in 2012. Isbell wore trainers. The audience was a polite batter of fans and hip locals. Dolly Parton was not referenced, but Isbell did wish the singer a "Happy Birthday" via a pointed tweet earlier that day. The show, as Isbell described at its start, was truly an evening of "rock 'n' roll." It's Isbell's profound lyrics, the edgy alt-country guitar sounds and the band's ragtag staging that lead me to believe that, despite the Unit's deep Alabama roots and country classifications, they are rockers.
"If a so-called 'country' band can rock so hard and so well," I thought to myself, "then could I be a country convert?"
Nay, I'm not yet a country proselyte (and probably never will be). I have no interest in Jason Aldean nor Luke Bryan nor Keith Urban. But I'll admit that I am hopping on the Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit bandwagon.
Many of Isbell's older songs, some of which were the tracks of his solo years and predate his albums with the 400 Unit, do sound decidedly country. On Friday, they performed songs like "Stockholm," "24 Frames" and "Speed Trap Town," which with its talk of Mamas and Daddys and the contradictions of small town life is as much of a country song as any I've heard. It paints a vibrant picture of the southern landscape. The band also performed "Outfit," a song from the catalogue of the Drive-By Truckers, Isbell's former band, and several other Isbell covers.
Songs like those seem country to me because of the undeniable twang and the use of instruments like the slide guitar and accordion. But when the band performed tracks off their 2017 record, "The Nashville Sound," I felt like I was at a rock concert. Without diving far too deep into a clouded argument about genre, as there are infinite names for every type of music and every artist performing that music, these tracks point towards rock.
Even if I'm wrong, even if Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit are country through and through, I adore their music because Isbell is such a discerning and intelligent lyricist. The song "If We Were Vampires," which Isbell performed acoustically during the encore, is in its recorded version and for many of the band's performances a duet for Isbell and his wife Amanda Shires, who is also part of the 400 Unit but does not perform at every show because she is also a solo musician. It's as well written as any sonnet or poem, and it artfully articulates the bitter-sweetness of marriage. Shires wasn't there on Friday, but the band's Tiny Desk concert is a beautiful rendition of the song.
"If we were vampires and death was a joke / We'd go out on the sidewalk and smoke / Laugh at all the lovers and their plans / I wouldn't feel the need to hold your hand."
When Isbell sang those lines, in particular, on Friday night, he was doing something that wasn't country or rock. It was strikingly bare and honest, and a perfect example of what makes Isbell's lyrics so popular, so genre-bending and so accessible to those listeners, like myself, who don't typically enjoy country.
His songs "Elephant" and "Cover Me Up" also bore an honesty and heaviness on Friday night. "Cover Me Up," which details a bit of Isbell's struggles with alcohol and his path to sobriety, had the audience whooping with a loving support and standing during an otherwise seated concert.
Isbell is a talented songwriter, a Twitter devotee and even a political voice. Yes, he's country. But he's a rocker with reach well beyond Nashville's limits.