Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
The Pour House (Charleston, SC)
February 21, 2010
It's been roughly 2 1/2 years since the first time I saw Isbell and his band rock the Pour House stage. My review of the show was one of the earlier posts on this here blog. Back then, I was struck by how humble and charming Isbell appeared, yet at the same time commanding a great deal of respect from the audience. The same went for last May, when I caught his act a second time at the Windjammer, out on Isle of Palms (one of Charleston's major beaches.) However, something seemed a bit different this time around. Isbell seemed a little more ragged, a little more loose. His banter was a bit less calculated, a bit more goofy (spent a minute praising one of our local Piggly Wiggly grocery stores), as if he was playing to a bunch of his pals instead of a reverent throng of fans. He cursed--a lot. He punctuated most of his sentences with "or some shit", and we heard "fuck" a few dozen times.
Somewhat pessimistically, I read this as a bit of a regression. While I don't care in the slightest that he's spitting profanity--I'm a guy whose girlfriend reprimands him constantly for cussing in public when children are around--Isbell was, in my eyes, made less awe-inspiring by this perceived devolution. In times past, he seemed very focused and exalted, gracefully stoic and showing every sign of inevitable stardom. He carried himself as if he'd be playing in front of sprawling masses someday. Yet last night, Isbell was just a guy on stage. I saw moments of vulnerability, even mid-song. A friend of mine who tagged along with me (and who knows not a note of Isbell's music) said "He doesn't always look happy to be up there."
But maybe I should come at this from a different angle. Perhaps Jason has realigned his expectations. Perhaps he's realized that playing in a club in front of a few hundred folks affords an artist the ability to be less refined, to be less a far-reaching presence. I could only imagine his standard had been inflated during his three-album stint in the Truckers. With the established band, he was playing in mid-sized venues as opposed to roadside bars like the Pour House. Maybe it took him a couple of years to embrace the benefits of this stage of his band's growth. To analogize this a bit, I work for a company 10 bodies strong. My boss is of the mindset that we should act like a Fortune 500 company, and before we know it, we'll be one. However, he's softened a bit to the notion that being a small company has its benefits (even if the goal of steady growth remains.) We don't have to clock in or clock out, we can dress down a bit, crack jokes in meetings, that sort of thing. The quality of work is still there, but you don't have to maintain such an iconic image, since all eyes aren't on you quite yet. So in some way, Jason Isbell is embracing the same theory.
With all this psychoanalytical blather, I haven't broached the most important talking point: Good god man, the music! Did JI&T400U bring the goods? The tinnitus from which I'm still suffering would like to answer that question. The band smashed out 2 and a half hours worth of its pop-affected Southern rock, and it had the whole place in a frenzy for the duration. The highlight of the evening for me was "Decoration Day", the Isbell-penned Truckers anthem I'd yet to hear. Truckers-wise, we heard the aforementioned, "Outfit", "Danko/Manuel", "Goddamned Lonely Love", a bruising "Never Gonna Change" to close the main set, and finally the much-requested ballad "TVA", which appeared on last year's rarities compilation The Fine Print.
The band of course rolled through a handful Isbell's solo tracks, including at least half a dozen from Sirens of the Ditch, which has aged surprisingly well. During the slow basher "Try", the band segued into Led Zeppelin's "No Quarter" for a few measures. This isn't uncommon: at the Windjammer gig, I went all fanboy when "Never Gonna Change" melted into Wilco's "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" for a minute or so.
As is standard with Isbell, the band checked off a handful of satisfying covers. Stand-bys "Psycho Killer" and set-closer "American Girl" were crowd pleasers, and I was happy to hear Big Star's "When My Baby's Beside Me", although most of the crowd may have been wondering who the hell Big Star was. Isbell offered props to Big Star after the song--"Both the band and the grocery store."
As great a night it was, I sure hope Jason's next album is a breakthrough of sorts. The band needs to find a broader audience. I believe they've played Charleston 4 times in less than three years, and you can only imagine with that sort of saturation that it might have a slimming effect on the turn-out. Still, this is one fan who'll at least always try to make an Isbell gig. But the urgency I feel to attend is a bit less palpable each time, and the excuse of "I'll catch him next time" is all the more appealing. But alas, here's to continued success for Isbell and his 400 Unit, and may their next album be a game-changer.
A few iPhone-tastic pics:
Other Pour House Reviews:
Jason Isbell (2007)
The Hold Steady
The Felice Brothers