For all he’s been through and for the success he’s attained, Jason Isbell comes across as a man who’s both confident and thankful. His new Live At Austin City Limits DVD brilliantly captures Isbell and his 400 Unit’s music, for sure … but it also provides a very intimate look at Isbell himself in a very public setting.
From his greeting to the crowd (“I can’t tell you how happy we are to be playing here on Austin City Limits … hopefully you can just see it in our eyes.”) to his between-tune comments (“I grew up watching this show … I love this show. This is the coolest thing on earth for me.”) to the final thank-you, there’s no question that Isbell means every word he says. And every note he plays.
So does the 400 Unit – keyboardist Derry deBorja, drummer Chad Gamble, Jimbo Hart on bass and Sadler Vaden on guitar. They are part of the package, flying wingtip-to-wingtip and doling it out with the same level of look-you-in-the-eye sincerity as their leader. Isbell’s wife Amanda Shires is on hand as well, her fiddle adding just-right touches of shy sparkle, gentle dazzle and sweet, sweet ache as needed. All hands are on standby to apply harmonies – always enough but never too much – and the combination of it all is impressive. This is a goddamned band – one to be reckoned with.
The set list is a mix of older tunes from Isbell’s days with the Drive-By Truckers and newer material, including cuts from 2013’s magnificent Southeastern. (When Isbell mentions his old Trucker bandmates early on in the set, the crowd roars. “I’ll tell ‘em that you guys still like ‘em,” he deadpans in his soft drawl.)
There’s country soul (“Alabama Pines”); there’s singlewide philosophy (“Outfit”); there’s hell-yes-we’re-from-the-South rock ‘n’ roll (“Super 8”); and there are songs that tell stories better than any book ever could (“Danko Manuel”). “Kids learn the ‘F’ word and grownups cry at this song – that’s been the response so far,” Isbell says as he introduces his stark and powerful cancer ballad “Elephant”. (The words will hit you hard; Shires’ fiddle will finish you off.)
Isbell and Vaden prove themselves to be a guitar tag team equally at home with gentle glide and passages of glistening melody as they are with Crazy Horse-style roar. Vaden works his beloved Gibson SG for much of the performance, coaxing tones of many colors out of it – from the lay-your-hair-back jet roar of “Flying Over Water” to the tailgate twang of “Codeine”. And when Isbell slips his glass slide onto his finger during “Danko Manuel”, get ready, as you’re about to see a master of standard-tuning slide guitar do his stuff.
Derry deBorja is everywhere without seeming to be: extended washes of sound that help to fully develop the emotion of the moment; bits of keys that weave around the vocal; dollops of barroom ivories and jazzbo smoky swirls. And in the meantime, Gamble and Hart operate as one here, with a tightness:looseness ratio that’s reminiscent of Sticky Fingers -era Charlie Watts/Bill Wyman.
Speaking of the Stones, it’s a set-closing romp through “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” that sums up all that’s good about Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. “Knocking” is a tune that a number of bands have covered – to varying degrees of success. Even the Stones themselves have never matched the smoky darkness and spontaneity of the original album version – and how could they? That kind of magic only happens once.
The difference here is that Isbell and company tackle the song for the song’s sake. Sure, they quote the stuff that counts (Isbell nails Keith Richards’ reckless razor tone on the intro with his Dusenberg Starplayer) but nobody is trying to be the Stones … they’re simply digging the tune. Whereas the original version only made the transition from swagger to Latin-flavored jam because of Mick Taylor’s enthusiasm in the moment, here the portal is already mapped out. What makes it exciting is the band’s ability to capture the vibe and reshape it as their own mission. Vaden takes the opening solo before passing it off to Isbell; Hart’s bass suddenly sounds like a massive upright – and Gamble lets the groove simmer for a moment before bringing it to a boil; deBorja scales buckets of organ into the air as Isbell takes his time building his solo – mixing quotes of Mick Taylor’s classic exploration with his own in-the-moment ideas.
And then comes one of the moments that will make you glad this is a video, rather than simply an album. As wonderfully recorded as this performance was, it’s the ability to see Jason’s Isbell’s face as he walks back to where his wife is standing as they head into the final moments of the jam that seals the deal.
If you’ve ever been in love; if you’ve ever shared a great accomplishment with someone who’s as proud of it as you are (and as proud of you as you are of them), then you know just exactly what that grin is all about on Jason Isbell’s face as he leans in toward Amanda Shires … guitar and fiddle joined at the soul.
Brian Robbins grins at his wife all the time over at www.brian-robbins.com