Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
ason Isbell only seems to get better with age. There's a reason he's playing almost all of his excellent June release, "Weathervanes" (9 out of 11 songs technically) on his new tour. And he has the attentive and devoted fan base to easily go along for the ride.
Isbell and The 400 Unit flew out of the gate with four straight songs from "Weathervanes," pretty much rocking away. He still explores the push and pull of relationships, starting off with "Death Wish" off "Weathervanes" where one partner helps the other as Isbell sings "Who's gonna save you? Who's left to pray to? What's the difference in a breakdown and a breakthrough?"
A few songs later, on "King of Oklahoma," Isbell sings of a down-and-out blue collar worker who's addicted thanks to a work injury. Life's not very pretty any more – "She used to make me feel like the king of Oklahoma/But nothing makes me feel like much of nothing anymore."
That's not to say that this was a tough listen or a completely depressing night of music. The lyrics may speak of tough characters and difficult times, but that's part of life, right?
Isbell,, who has an extra fine sandpapery voice, owns his material. You can feel the heartache of the characters of which he sings.
When not focusing on "Weathervanes," Isbell paid a lot of attention to his 2013 release, "Southeastern," picking six songs from another fine release.
Isbell made sure to introduce his band – in some cases twice – and with good reason. This is a well-oiled machine particularly guitarist Sadler Vaden, who also took lead vocals on "Honeysuckle Blue," a song from his Drivin' 'n' Cryin' days. Not only did Vaden acquit himself as a singer, but this fit in perfectly with the night sonically. Here and elsewhere, Isbell and Vaden would sometimes literally face off on their guitars with each taking turns on lead or pushing the other hard.
While Isbell and his band may have rocked, they also knew their way around more overtly country and laid back material. Isbell often traded in his electric axe for an acoustic, and Vaden did the same on a few occasions. The result was a focus on vocals.
About the only thing missing was Amanda Shires, who plays fiddle for her husband's band. Shires has done about a quarter of the shows on the tour and is about to start her own tour next week.
She may have been missed, but Shires also was not forgotten. Shires could not have been far from Isbell's mind since a number of songs dealt with intimate relationships. Perhaps none more than the taut, intensely personal closing song of the regular set, "Cover Me Up" about his wife's love and his dealing with addiction.
Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit are a dependable outfit whether in concert and or on their releases. Yes, Isbell reached back for a few older songs, but with consistently excellent new material, Isbell shows time and again why the best for him will hopefully always be yet to come. Depressing characters and all.