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Isbell mines sounds exceedingly well

Blue Hills Pavilion, Boston, June 27, 2017

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit's new disc may be called "the Nashville Sound," but that doesn't mean he's wedded to country, usually considered the Nashville sound. Music City is far more than that, of course, with an indie element and lots of musical diversity. The same held true for Isbell and company in concert the same day Billboard showed him atop the country albums chart.

Whatever it was that Isbell played, he delivered in spades. Isbell can sing and play. And the 400 Unit was one strong outfit.

Isbell has done a remarkable job of building his career since he departed as guitarist for Drive-By Truckers. He's doing it his way with his own label, creating an ever-wider fan base. It's not easy in this day and age to necessarily forge a career that's built on longevity, but with a slew of excellent, well-critiqued releases and excellent shows such as this, Isbell is well-positioned to do so.

Isbell relied on his new disc for the opening one-two punch of "Anxiety" and "Hope the High Road." With his ever so slightly roughed-up vocals mixed high throughout, Isbell was an efficient, at times emotional singer.

One wondered though if Isbell would peak too soon, lighting into "24 Frames" and "Decoration Day" from DBT immediately thereafter with a chunk of his best known material seemingly coming early.

But another point that Isbell underscored was that he has a wealth of material to choose from. He played 8 of the 10 songs from "The Nashville Sessions," and they stood up well compared to songs such as "Cover Me Up," the country bent of "If It Takes a Lifetime" and "The Life You Chose."

The 400 Unit is top notch as well with the excellent Sader Vaden on electric guitar, (he shared lead with Isbell), Amanda Shires on fiddle and backing vocals (she's also Isbell's wife and has a nice little career of her own), Chad Gamble on drums and Jimbo Hart on bass Derry deBorja on keyboards. There is a reason they receive billing from Isbell as it's a team effort.

Isbell has a lot of sounds to rely upon from country to rock to bluesy rock. Fortunately, for his sake and ours, he does them all well.

And that may never have been made more clear than the triumphant closing of "Whipping Post" from The Allman Brothers. The Alabama native talked of listening to them growing up. "We're going to try to keep their memory alive," Isbell vowed.

With sturdy, sharp playing from guitars to keyboards and more thrown into the mix, Isbell did the Allmans proud. Not only did he keep the Allmans alive, but he did a lot tonight to ensure that his music ought to stay around for a long time as well.

The Mountain Goats opened with a somewhat quirky set ranging covering musical and thematical bases, including wrestling and unicorns ("Unicorn Tolerance" from the new disc "Goths"). Give them credit for cool song titles - "Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds" - at least.

Barefooted lead singer and chief Mountain Goats member John Darnielle led the charge with an times intense delivery with the quartet mixing up the sonics.

One got the distinct sense that having the Mountain Goats open was Isbell's clear preference. Isbell said that he was told the combo was a bit odd. "I don't think it's strange at all," he said. "I think it's cool as shit."

Definitely diverse, both The Mountain Goats and Isbell made music that had depth and diversity and even was enjoyable. It doesn't get much better than that.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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