Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit At The Beacon Theatre, Friday, June 23rd, 2017, Reviewed
On the second of their three day Beacon Theatre residence, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit went long and deep, unpacking songs that folks who got into Isbell in 2013 might not know. We didn’t get the Isbell show of the last five years. No “Stockholm,” no “Decoration Day,” “Elephant,” “Children Of Children” (actually, I don’t know if he plays that one often but he sure should), “Speed Trap Town,” “Super 8″… this was not your everyday Isbell. Not that anyone was complaining, the former Drive-By Trucker, current poster child for Americana has one of those voices that sound intense whatever he is thinking, singing, or doing. However, it is possibly more intense when you are singing a love song to your toddler daughter (Mercy Isbell!) when she is in the audience, and if we expected the song in question, we didn’t expect “Dress Blues” and the aggressive rockisms of “Never Gonna Change”.
In other words, last night’s set was a serious fans set and though I am not that serious a fan, it all worked from one end to another including the opening act. I’ve seen a number of big rock acts this year alone and the one constant is the nagging feeling that even the best of them, even a Tom Petty, is watching the clock and Jason and his band grasp the significance of the one on oneness this moment before it passes aspect of concerts.
As for the opening act, the Mountain Goats, I haven’t written a nice word about the leader, John Darnielle, ever. The Mountain Goats went from a lo-fi bedsit band in the 1990s to their current imminence on Merge Records. Merge is owned by two members of Superchunk, who share drummer Jon Wurster with Darnielle. The Mountain Goats have the wrong set of references for me, It is as if they are influenced by EC Comics, there is something very urban Americana twisted about their output and its subject matter doesn’t resonate with a guy not raised here. A song about Black Sabbath doesn’t sound like Black Sabbath and a song about Frankie Lymon doesn’t sound like Frankie Lymon and a song called “Up The Wolves” -about John’s physically abusive step-father, is Darnielle’s essential greatness personified. “Up The Wolves” makes the extremely clever Romulus And Remus story a revisionism into parental abandonment. It sounds better now, actually a lot better, than it did 2005 -The Mountain Goats can play the hell outta this stuff, they don’t sound indie folk at all, they get their groove, they nail hooks I never saw coming, and they performed for 45 minutes with riveting intensity and sparks flying. Consider me the lonely goater whose flock has returned to him.
The 400 Unit had their work cut out for them and a shout of “I hope you have a good time” kicked off a loud sludgy metal band sound, with the odd, and not particularly smart, decision to open the proceedings with “Anxiety” -perhaps the only misstep of the evening. The living, breathing definition of a deep album cut, it’s depressing and intense and actually sounds like one of Paul Williams rowdier “The Phantom Of The Paradise” songs (a compliment) and by the time they smack out the outro we feel settled for a moment… Jason has been opening with the equally deep but vastly catchier “Cumberland Cap” and has been following that with “Stockholm” and I get the sense it was a smarter one two, last night he went into “Hope The High Road,” a terrific song no doubt, he nails the “last year was a sonuvabitch” with gusto, still two new album cuts to start us off maybe not so much, so at least he had the smarts to settle any restlessness with one of his greatest songs, “24 Frames” and now we are on track for the next 105 minutes.
With the band in control, it became apparent what the 400 Unit were about, on record they are a louder rocking band than Jason solo, so when Jason would dub last night a rock and roll show, it was just that though not only that. When I caught Isbell at the Americana Festival at Lincoln Center three years ago, it was something else: a folk rock breathtaking singer songwriterly sweep, but in 2017 it is a rock band aesthetic and more: less 400 Unit than Family Unit. This family aesthetic is so central to the man who wrote “don’t act like your family’s a joke”. Last night he told us how his daughter’s first four words were directed at the bass player Jimbo Hart: “Jimbo wears a hat” and took the time to seriously shout out the merch guy (“he’ll give you the shirt off his back”), and if all that wasn’t enough, there is always Amanda Shires.
Amanda is the band fiddler -a great musician in her own right (my review of her solo performance two years ago here), and also Isbell’s wife, and he revolves the show around her whether he means to or not, he always has his eye upon her and he makes his relationship with Amanda so central. She has also inspired two of his great ballads, “Cover Me Up” and “If We Were Vampires”. Around the middle of the evening the performance got as personal as humanly possible: “Dress Blues” from 2007 about a High School acquaintance, Marine Cpl. Matthew D. Conley, who was killed at age 21 in Iraq, followed by “Something To Love” for his daughter, “Outfit” for his father, “Cover Me Up” for his wife and “If It Takes A Lifetime” for himself. That run of songs sent it straight from a good evening to a great one. Isbell has a terrific voice, he exudes so much feeling without being a wimp about it, so much so that he gets away with his uxorious performance. Isbell comes across as a new sort of Southern gentleman, one who has put aside the Confederate Flag but maintained the gentlemanly ways, who denounces the hard hearted racism of the past and the mindless genuflecting to the Republican Party who have anything but their interests at heart in search of a world that can burn brightly for his exquisitely named daughter. His trip from southern rock wild boy to happily married rock star is embedded in family and wife. For Isbell last night it went inwards and then out. I met Isbell once, bothering him for a selfie at Governors Ball, and he was very polite. Personally, if I was watching Neko Case in peace and quiet, and somebody bothered me, I’d be much less accommodating.
The first song of a three song encore was “If We Were Vampires” -a song so great Isbell rises above everything our instincts tell us and claims that our mortality might be a blessing because we know one day we will lose the ones we love and so we cherish them more now. He is quite right and in the same vein, get on to Stubhub right now and go and see the band’s final performance of the residency tonight because time is fleeting and one day he, you, and me, will all be gone.