Isbell took the stage in an undramatic fashion, stepping out and draping his camouflage guitar strap--from which dangled an unobtrusive black Stratocaster--over his shoulders. In fact, his initial emergence from the shadows elicited very few hoots or even claps. I realized it was quite possible that a majority of the audience might not even recognize Isbell, and perhaps were mistaking him for a roadie or guitar tech. And why shouldn't they? Prior to his solo album, Isbell was just a Trucker, lurking humbly alongside the charismatic presence of Patterson Hood and the throaty growl of Mike Cooley.
As soon as I really started to appreciate the Truckers earlier this year, I noticed that Isbell was more of a balladeer than the gritty gothic realists who recruited him. His songwriting is more anthemic, his voice a bit more digestible. So it seemed he was destined to--perhaps outgrow is the wrong word--destined to deviate from the band's modus operandi, to explore to new territory that is more conducive to his own stylings and thus allow him to tap into his immense potential as an artist. And indeed, his first solo album, Sirens of the Ditch, released earlier this year, is not a collection of would-be Isbell Trucker contributions. Rather, it's a nicely packaged melange of blues, pop, country, and folk that makes for a solid first effort.
The warm reception of this released paired with his achievements with the DBTs made this show a must-see for me. I arrived with my friend Lee, more than a little anxious. The announced start time for opening act Cary Ann Hearts (an S.C. favorite whose act I've meant to catch for a long time) was 9:00, but we didn't leave Mt. Pleasant (20-30 minutes away, depending on traffic) until quarter after nine. What's more, my ineptitude as a navigator led to a wrong turn and about 8 miles of detour. We pulled into the uncrowded parking lot of the Pour House, located on a commercialized stretch of highway on James Island. A few smokers mingled outside. We assumed we hadn't missed much, and the bouncer confirmed that suspicion, informing us that things were running a tad late and Cary Ann hadn't even taken the stage yet, despite it being almost an hour since the announced start time. But alas, it was a bar as well as a venue, and thus they are in the business of inflating tabs by any means possible.
The Pour House is a cool place. The stage is on the left as you enter, raised only about two feet from the main floor, and is about eye-level with the raised area that makes up the back third of the barroom. The bar runs lengthwise on the wall adjacent to the left of the stage. To the right of the stage was the ragtag merch table, which was flush with the front of the stage. Behind the table was a curtain which hung from the high ceiling, sectioning off a makeshift greenroom were the band stirred, out of view of the audience. As Lee and I examined the stage set-up (ever the nosy musicians), I had a very slight view of the 'greenroom', where I saw Isbell relaxing on a small sofa, typing on a Macbook and having a cigarette.
Lee and I retreated to the back, as the room quickly populated. We staked out an area near the soundboard and Lee examined the sound equipment, taking pride in the fact that he uses the same compressors in his studio. We eavesdropped on some bootleggers until Carry Ann took the stage. A small but sprightly dynamo, her music was classic Nashville country infused with delta blues, and she seemed in her element thumping out prison-blues shuffles on her archaic looking Gibson archtop guitar. For the last part of her set, she brought on a collaborator--a young guy whose name I didn't catch but with whom she harmonized quite nicely on a cover of "Sin City" and a handful of originals in the same vein.
Lee and I had moved up front about halfway through her performance, setting up camp about three heads back, stage right-center. After Carry Ann took her leave, Isbell's band, the 400 Unit, consisting simply of a guitarist, bassist and drummer, went about their pre-performance routine, plugging in pedals and tuning instruments (the frustrated guitarist had to stomp offstage to replace a string that had snapped as he attempted to tune it.)
After retreating backstage for a few minutes, the musicians reemerged, and then out came Isbell. He doesn't seem like much of a rock star upon first glance. His wide-set eyes are never more than half open, and rest beneath a Pomade-slicked haircut that wouldn't seem out of place in a 50s diner. His young face belies even his 28 years, and it seems as though he never shed his baby fat. To someone none the wiser, he could be the hardworking everyman character of his Truckers favorite "Outfit". And what he was wearing (I won't call it an outfit) was simple and uninvasive: his top three snaps hung open to reveal a grey undershirt; the cuffs of his jeans bunched on his dress-casual sneakers. No skin-tight jeans, stature-enhancing boots, or pretentious headwear. Just clothes, clearly not of import relative to the rocking that was imminent. But this is not to say there isn't a rock star bone in his body. Several times during the course of the performance I saw a man who was destined to tread the boards of the Ryman or the Fillmore West. During his blistering slow-blues solo for "Hurricanes and Hand Grenades", he certainly looked the part: A smoldering cigarette precariously dangling from his lower lip, mouth slightly open, eyelids resting shut, immersed in the soul he was creating as his fingers staggered like drunken legs across every fret he could find. But as he entered the stage for the first time, he seemed subdued and unaware of the hundreds of eyes all aglare before him.
Isbell equipped his axe, and then appreciatively enjoyed a shot of unidentified brownish liqueur that was offered up from some outstretched arm in the front row. Just one of many an amicable gesture that seemed natural to Isbell. Whether it was a polite request to his sound guy--his well manicured southern accent laced with a warm charm--or his friendly announcement of the ten minute cigarette break that allowed the audience to eschew the awkward yet obligatory pre-encore humoring period, the dynamic between audience and artist became less sycophantic and more of a mutual enjoyment of the evening.
Isbell made his way through most of Sirens, including a stunning version "Razor Town". The hard-rocking "Try" was bashed out with gusto, the bittersweet "Chicago Promenade" featured Isbell starting out on a small keyboard and remanning his Strat mid-song in time for one of his stellar solos. And he didn't shy away from his DBT catalogue. A decidedly more rocking version of "Goddamn Lonely Love" was the band's third song of the night. "Danko/Manuel" was just as eerie as the album version, the line "Richard Manuel is dead" chanted in morbid unison by every pair of lips that knew it. Isbell dedicated "Outfit" to the recently defunct radio station 96 Wave, which always had the Truckers in heavy rotation. He was rather impassioned in his defense of the station, deeming it "one of the best radio stations in the country" and bluntly asserting that "someone didn't get the fuckin' memo." He closed his set with an extended version of "Never Gonna Change" that invoked a barrage of fist pumps to complement the powerful chorus.
And then Isbell called for the cigarette break and said he'd be back in ten minutes. And then we left.
I know, I know. Rock show sacrilege. If it was up to me, I would have been there until the last speck of dust had settled. But again, the show did start an hour and a half late, and Lee's newborn son and wife were waiting at home. Plus we both had a 7:30 wake-up call, so we had to cut our losses and take off. I wasn't too disappointed to have to leave early, but I know I felt a bit self conscious as we strolled pass the accusing eyes of the smokers in the parking lot.
But I did not leave unfulfilled. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit put on one of the most enjoyable shows I've attended in ages. His understated charisma was such a treat, a welcome complement to his musicianship, and that of his band. I don't think it's too farfetched to imagine Jason Isbell might eventually find his way into the company of the most well-respected Americana singer-songwriters, like Steve Earle or even Johnny Cash. And if he does ascend to such an iconic level, I can at least say "I saw him back when."