One of my favorite artists playing at University of Texas over my birthday weekend is a fine excuse to check out one of America’s hippest cities.
Austin is one of those towns that everybody knows is badass: the rich history, the UT campus, and a legendary music scene. Somehow I had never been there and Jason Isbell and his band The 400 Unit were playing a three night run of shows at the Bass Concert Hall just before my birthday, so I just had to make it happen. Having a place to stay and cool people to hang out with made it even better.
When I first got turned on to Drive-By Truckers in the early 2000s, Jason Isbell was a member. My favorite record of theirs, The Dirty South, was the first one I heard, and Jason’s songs on that album are all stellar. Of course, one album later, he would leave the band. At first that made me very sad, but once he started releasing fantastic solo music and Pat and Mike continued to make great music as DBT sans Jason, it turned out to be for the best for all involved.
Given my love for the songs he penned while in DBT (“Decoration Day”, Danko/Manuel”, “Outfit”, and “TVA” to name a few), part of me was hoping he might play a few of them during the set. Of course, he is over ten years removed from that band, has a brand new band that he has recorded four albums with, and is laying his own legacy as a solo artist – so, it didn’t seem likely. So, the evening was a bit of a will he/wont he for yours truly…
No matter how much you love an artist, it is typically important to enjoy their recent work if you are going to have a positive concert experience. Let’s face it: most people are touring in order to get their new music out. They are still somewhat excited to be playing it, they hope the crowd will like it, and of course they hope you’ll buy the new record. Good news for me: the newest Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit album, The Nashville Sound, is tremendous. True to form, we were treated to 7 songs from that bad boy; unfortunately the first song of the night was the weakest from that record, the bit-too-long “Anxiety”.
Alas, after that things got downright amazing. This was easily one of the greatest shows I have seen all year, and Jason and his band sounded so tight it was hard to believe what was happening. The venue didn’t hurt, what an amazing concert hall. Oh, and Jason is one slick southern devil – true to what I had heard, he worked the crowd with charm, sincerity, humor, and some ridiculously well written, thought-provoking songs. “Speed Trap Town” and “Elephant” are both so emotional and raw that they almost brought me to tears live, and “White Man’s World” was an excellent reminder of where we are in America today.
Near the end of the show, Jason did play a classic from his DBT days, the contemplative life-lesson filled “Outfit”. This came after I had just given up any hope that he would play any of those songs – well played, Jason. By the time they walked off the stage, the crowd was more than just won over; we were in full standing ovation mode.
Ah, the encore. As soon as Jason played the opening notes to “Ohio” I began to lose my shit. When someone covers my man Neil, it always gets me pretty damn excited. And if they do it well, it definitely makes me think more positively about the band. Well, they nailed it, turning the classic protest song into a six minute jam session. Afterwards, they played another slow and thoughtful ballad, “If We Were Vampires” (live for today, people!) and gave a hearty bow to the rousing standing ovation they earned.
P.S. – Part of the afterparty of the show included a trip to the legendary Hole In the Wall club for live music and much, much more drinking and even a little dancing. I noticed a signed campaign photo of another one of my musical heroes, the great Kinky Friedman. Apparently he ran for Governor in his home state of Texas in 2006 – I mean, how hard could it be? Hilarious.
Hope the High Road
Something More Than Free
Speed Trap Town
White Man’s World
The Life You Chose
Chaos and Clothes
Cover Me Up
Ohio (CSNY cover)
If We Were Vampires
Spotify playlist link:
My “Best of Jason Isbell” playlist link: