by Matt Saldaña
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Lincoln Theatre, Raleigh
Friday, Feb. 20
In three short years with the Drive-By Truckers, the Georgia-based southern-rock stalwarts, Alabama native Jason Isbell was a model of efficiency: The eight songs he wrote for them, over the course of three albums, are among the group's finest tracks. (I would argue Isbell's "Outfit" is the best song they ever did.) Last night at Raleigh's Lincoln Theatre, Isbell--who now fronts his own group, the 400 Unit--sounded great, but had noticeably less restraint. The show, which included highlights from Isbell's tenure with the Truckers, as well as tracks from the forthcoming Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, his second solo record, was a DBT-esque two-and-a-half hours long, including a break and encore. Aside from a straight-ahead cover of "Psycho Killer," in which guitarist Browan Lollar sang the verse, Isbell was center stage from start to finish, and seemingly loving it.
By the show's end, he told the crowd it was the most fun he'd had on this tour, and though the near-sold out crowd had thinned a bit by then, they ate it up. Earlier in the night, he railed against the Indy for a negative review, before launching, appropriately, into "Never Gonna Change," a DBT track that instructs critics to "shut your mouth and play along."
Isbell's voice carried beautifully all night, particularly as he played with higher melodies on "Outfit," and tip-toed around the minimalist soul of "The Blue," a track off 400 Unit. The show's major flaw tended to creep in around the six-minute mark of songs, as extended solos got cluttered (Isbell is a superb guitarist, and typically plays the solo as he sings, while Lollar takes the rythm part), and the ballad tempo of 400 Unit became repetitive. The last song off that album, "The Last Song I Will Write," exhibits a charming broodiness on record, but it came off as tired during the encore.
Maybe Isbell was actually tired. But I couldn't help thinking: What if Patterson Hood was there to sing his version of "The Assassin" (which Isbell breathed new life into), or Mike Cooley was on hand to tell a story, in raspy monotone, to break up the mix? As good as DBT's two-to-three hour shows are, they certainly would lose their luster with just Cooley, or Hood, on the mic. The same, for now, is true for Isbell. But, at his pace of writing at least two brilliant songs on each of his records, he'll soon have one of the best sets, song for song, around.