Since leaving DBT to front his own group, the 400 Unit, Isbell has honed his chops to an even finer edge, becoming one of the most literate and thoughtful songwriters around, as well as a stellar vocalist and superlative guitar slinger. His full skill set was on prominent display last night when he and the 400 Unit took the stage at the Sheldon Concert Hall.
Isbell and company leaned heavily on material from the band's latest release, "Here We Rest." Songs like "Coedine" and "Alabama Pines," which already stand out on the record, gained a new depth live, while others that didn't quite pop out of the grooves for me, like "Tour of Duty," really came alive in front of an audience.
The 400 Unit's cover of The Meters' "Hey Pocky Way" -- featuring a funky NOLA second line groove courtesy of drummer Chad Gamble, who also provided the vocals -- was one of many highlights of the set. It also saw Isbell break out his slide for the first time in the show for a series of stinging and soulful runs. The band's heartbreaking take on "Dress Blues," written for a friend of Isbell's who joined the Marine Corps and died overseas, brought the crowd to its feet for the first time, but not the last, in the show. Thankfully, Isbell isn't one of those artists that doesn't want to acknowledge his work in past bands. He brought out several of his DBT favorites, including "Goddamn Lonely Love," "Danko/Manuel" and, what is probably the finest song about fatherly advice ever penned, "Outfit."
Throughout the show, Isbell and the 400 Unit displayed an uncanny groove and musical connection to each other. They wandered over, under and sometimes through the songs while always maintaining the essential thread of the tune. Their extended takes on songs like "Try" were reminiscent of the finest live moments of Crazy Horse.
The band closed the show with an incendiary version of "We Ain't Never Gonna Change" from the DBT release "The Dirty South," which segued into Jimi Hendrix's "Stone Free" and back again. The house lights came up almost as soon as the band left the stage, leaving fans scratching their heads at the lack of an encore. Isbell later tweeted that someone behind the scenes had jumped the gun with the lights and that next time around, he'll play two encores. (I, for one, plan on holding him to that.)
When your frontman wears a white t-shirt, has a red bandana tucked into the back pocket of his jeans and slings a Telecaster, the Springsteen comparisons are inevitable, but openers John Henry and The Engine were no Boss clones. With plenty of big chords, bigger drums and the occasional lonesome cry of a fiddle, the group played a set of originals that most definitely acknowledged their blue-collar rock roots but also had plenty of nods to other fine songwriters. I could've sworn I heard a little bit of Paul Westerberg in the mix.