Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit played an extraordinary and compelling show on Saturday night at the gorgeous Lucas Theatre here in Savannah. The show was made all the better by the thrilling opener Anderson East, but more on him and his band in a minute.
With his two recent albums Southeastern and Something More Than Free, Isbell has placed himself at the forefront of the Americana and country scenes. Among those of us who follow the club scene and emerging acts, it’s automatically suspicious that Something More Than Free vaulted to the top of the country charts, a spot too often occupied by trite, uninventive and just plain lame music.
But Isbell’s work is all about sentiment, not sentimentality. When he sings about small town life, about difficult relationships, about the perils of booze and drugs, you feel it in your bones.
Consider a song like “Speed Trap Town”:
The doctor said Daddy wouldn’t make it a year
But the holidays are over and he’s still here
How long can they keep you in the ICU?
Veins through the skin like a faded tattoo
My own father spent two months in the ICU before passing away in March, so I get it. We have duties to perform, and sometimes it seems like every option is a bad one.
Or how about the randomness that can suddenly transform even the most meticulously managed life? From “24 Frames”:
You thought God was an architect, now you know
He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow
And everything you built that’s all for show goes up in flames
In 24 frames
Not all the songs are so emotionally taxing, thank God, and even the hardest lines are tempered by simply beautiful instrumentation. Isbell isn’t a flashy performer, but it’s mesmerizing to watch him let loose on guitar, and when he lets his voice loose too, there’s nowhere else you’d rather be.
The production was also visually gorgeous, and The 400 Unit — Jimbo Hart (bass, vocals); Sadler Vaden (guitar, vocals); Derry deBorja (keys); Chad Gamble (drums) — is incredibly talented. (Bonus points to any Savannahians who remember Vaden from the Charleston-based band Leslie, which called it quits in 2011.)
I’m an imperfect notetaker and not so good with song titles, but the setlist looked something like this:
- “Palmetto Rose”
- “Decoration Day”
- “How to Forget”
- “24 Frames”
- “Dress Blues”
- “Alabama Pines”
- “Different Days”
- “Seven-Mile Island”
- “Outfit” (a Drive-By Truckers song)
- “Speed Trap Town”
- “Never Gonna Change” (another Truckers song)
- “Cover Me Up”, which was followed by a spontaneous standing ovation from the sellout crowd
- “If It Takes a Lifetime”
- “The Life You Chose”
- “Traveling Alone”
- “Flying Over Water”
- “Children of Children”
- “Something More Than Free”
Isbell and the band played at the Ships of the Sea at the 2014 Savannah Music Festival (my kind-of-a-review), but still at one point on Saturday, Isbell — who has logged years on the road with the Drive-By Truckers and on his own — expressed his sheer joy at having enough fans that he didn’t have to play a room in Savannah with televisions on the wall: “Goddammit, I got tired of playing in front of people watching ballgames and people eating hot wings.”
Did Isbell know just how ironic his words were? I doubt it, but Isbell and The 400 Unit played at the downtown Locos in 2007 on the infamous lemon pepper chicken wings night — the night that alderman Van Johnson objected to the entirely legal business model at the restaurant with live music that attracted latenight all ages crowds. Such models began flourishing — as observers like me predicted at the time — after the city of Savannah’s decision the previous year to ban 18- to 20-year-olds from downtown bars with live music. Van Johnson’s experience prompted the nightmarish bureaucracy of the “hybrid” licenses, which city officials now want to end, but the new alcohol ordinance has still not been implemented after nearly three years of work. The current bureaucracy has of course fueled Savannah’s vibrant and completely unregulated DIY house show scene, which we love but can’t write about on a public platform like this. For some background, check out this 2007 interview just before that show by Jim Reed in Connect and
this Savannah Morning News article about Locos getting screwed.
Over four years ago, Anderson East came to The Sentient Bean on a solo tour. I hadn’t launched this blog at that point, but I previewed the show for my other site Savannah Unplugged. Anderson started before the coffeeshop staff had even pulled the curtains on the front windows, but the summer light streaming inside actually heightened the effect of the rich vocals and guitar work. I was expecting a sort of quirky singer-songwriter thing, but it was quickly apparent that Anderson could play just about any roots style — that skill coupled with his charisma and good looks suggested great, great promise. Sometimes when you think “that guy could be a star,” it turns out that you’re right.
So I was among the small percentage of the Lucas audience who had already heard all of Anderson’s released work and who wasn’t surprised by the stellar opening performance.
I didn’t know, however, that Anderson was traveling with a six-piece band behind him. I’m sure some numbers guy explained to him how much more money he could make with a smaller ensemble, but the horns and keys took the show to the next level.
Anderson East’s set included originals like “Satisfy Me” and smartly chosen covers like “Tupelo Honey”. The crowd loved it — hard to imagine a better response to an opener who was unknown to so many in the audience.
I didn’t ask for a press pass, but I did snag tickets at the beginning of the pre-sale, and I brought along my Fuji x100t, so I got some pretty good shots from up front. Click on through for more: