Published Jul 16, 2014Somewhere between the singing river that weaves through his hometown of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the inventive fretwork of southern rock outfits like the Allman Brothers, the pithy storytelling genius of Tom Franklin or Elmore Leonard and the "let's settle in and stay awhile" confidence of a dedicated touring act, you'll find Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit. You'll find perhaps the finest singer-songwriter in the game today, backed by a top-flight band that has found the sweet spot of absolute synergy with their frontman. It's a hell of a thing.
Early in what would stretch into a riveting two-hour set, Jason Isbell looked out at the audience and smiled. "I can already tell this is going to be fun." Pulling liberally from his now formidable catalogue, Isbell gave the people what they wanted and then a bit more. From old tunes first performed with the Drive-By Truckers ("Danko/Manuel," "Goddamn Lonely Love," a show-definingly huge "Decoration Day") to the best songs from his past two albums, both of which are modern masterworks in the Americana vein, the set list was packed to overflowing. (Happily, Isbell didn't really touch the iffy material from his first two post-Truckers records, neither of which met either our expectations or, apparently, his own.)
From the devastating "Elephant" to the wistful "Different Days" to the hopeful "Tour of Duty" to the playful "Codeine" to the blistering "Never Gonna Change," Isbell and his band moved freely from mood to mood, commanding the crowded hall to follow them wherever they led. And when the band stepped back to allow Isbell to sing his intense "Cover Me Up" — among the most shattering songs I've ever heard about kicking an addiction — it felt for a few moments like all the air had been sucked out of the room. Everyone around me was holding his and her collective breath. It was a rare, eerie, magical, live music moment.
Toronto's Doug Paisley opened the show with a restrained set that showcased his extraordinary voice and captivating songs. Paisley has a remarkable sound, a delivery and tone that recalls the wood smoke vibe of early 1970s folky pickers like Kris Kristofferson or cowboy Bob Dylan. At his best, he is among our best. Too bad his band wasn't up to the task last night; under-rehearsed, and struggling to lock in with their leader, the result was a frustrating mix of great songs, a beautiful voice and a stuttering presentation.