Reviewer: Jared Morningstar
Venue: The Temple Theatre
Sometimes, one needs a reminder of what it feels like to be human. Those in attendance for the Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit concert at the Temple Theatre on Sunday night were lucky enough to receive one.
Isbell is no stranger to Michigan; his tours have paid visits to our beautiful state several times over the years. However, most of those stops have been to the Detroit area. Or Ann Arbor. Or Grand Rapids. So, it was incredibly special when he scheduled a visit to Saginaw, and, as usual, he did not disappoint.
Before Isbell took the stage, fellow Nashville artist Peter One and his band opened the show. They were outstanding players in their own right and helped set the mood for a wonderful night. After their first song, Peter One told the audience his fascinating story. While he has been living in America for several years, he is native to Cote d’Ivoire in West Africa, and he treated the audience to a diverse offering of musical styles: some songs felt blues and country influenced while others were taken directly from the culture of his home nation. The topics varied as well: he sang stories about domestic violence, homesickness, and political turbulence. It was clear, though, that even with such a wide range of songs and sounds, the human experience exhibited in his music transcended language (he performed in both English and French) and cultural differences.
When Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit took the stage, it felt like the bubble had burst, and the crowd’s reaction was electric. While Isbell often gets branded as a country artist, those who have seen him live know he is a rock and roller at heart. The show started heavily with familiar songs such as “24 Frames”, which would not sound out of place on an R.E.M. album, the Springsteen-esque “It Gets Easier”, and “Hope the High Road”, a guitar-heavy track that tackles the ugly divisiveness currently haunting our nation. Of course, the show had plenty of quieter, thoughtful moments as well in the form of numbers like “Dreamsicle”, the somber tales told in “Elephant”, “Only Children”, and “Last of My Kind”, and his brilliant standards about love and relationships such as “If We Were Vampires” and “Cover Me Up”. As is commonplace for Isbell and the band, the concert was a showcase for their mastery of several song stylings.
And what a band they are! Jason Isbell himself has long been known as a wildly talented guitarist, first as a member of the Drive-By Truckers and later as a solo artist, and that talent was on full display tonight, whether he was playing an acoustic Martin, his own signature Fender Telecaster, or a 1950s Michigan-made Gibson Les Paul that he purchased on tour in Sweden that he played for the first time on stage back in its home state. Of course, though, Isbell wasn’t the only one who got to show off his musical chops; every member of the band had his moment to shine. Bassist Jimbo Hart impressed everyone with his grooves, especially during the epic “What’ve I Done to Help”. His rhythm partner on drums, the incomparable Chad Gamble, proved what a versatile player he is when he rocked heavier numbers like “Super 8”, kept a steady, subtle beat on “Alabama Pines”, or banged away with his mallets in the heavier section of “Cover Me Up”. Equally as impressive was Derry DeBorja on keys, who, while he had several great moments, was strikingly remarkable as Isbell’s only musical support during the haunting musical narrative that is “Elephant”. Finally, lending his lead guitar expertise was Sadler Vaden who not only wowed the audience with his amazing solos and Pete Townshend windmills, but also got a turn on lead vocals for the band’s cover of Drivin’ N’ Cryin’s “Honeysuckle Blue”, for whom he was once a member. The best part, though, was how much fun they were having performing together. Several smiles were shared between them throughout the night, perhaps only outnumbered by the smiles on the faces of the crowd.
However, while all of this alone would make for a breathtaking night of music, what makes Jason Isbell’s music so special is the way it resonates with listeners. He is famous for wearing his heart and vulnerability on his sleeve, openly discussing his troubles, emotions, and heartbreaks, including his struggles with alcoholism and his decade-long successful sobriety, even if it never “gets easy”. A staple of any Isbell show is the cheer of the crowd during “Cover Me Up” when he sings that he “swore off that stuff forever this time”, and tonight’s show was no exception. The line itself is simplistic by Isbell’s standards, but the Saginaw crowd wasn’t cheering for the poetry of the words; they were cheering for Isbell himself. So many can relate to his plight, just as so many of them sadly understand when he sings about losing loved ones to cancer, absent parents, and leaving home. And anyone who has truly been in love knows that the specter of mortality is ever-present, that “we can’t go on forever,” which is why so many people in the audience were silently in tears over the beautiful words of “If We Were Vampires”.
What makes Jason Isbell truly exceptional was undeniable on a cold, snowy Michigan night: his humanity. The band’s superb musicianship and Isbell’s brilliant lyrics combined to create a performance that made the audience feel alive. In a world that can seem cold, dark, and mechanical, they showed those whose hearts were still beating that they were not alone. During “Last of My Kind”, when Isbell asked if he was indeed the last, a voice audibly cried out “No! We are with you!”
We were, indeed. And we absolutely will be again when he makes his return.