Friday, July 27, 2007

Round One to Jason Isbell

Been talking about how I'm gonna blog about this for a while now, but last week I managed to catch both Jason Isbell and his new band the 400 Unit and then Isbell's former mates, the Drive-By Truckers, on Friday.

A few things have been written about the Truckers' set, most agreeing it was a decent showing but not quite up to what die-hard fans have come to expect. Last summer's 31 song marathon/death march/rock-and-roll-salvation was so intense, such a sweaty mess of a rock concert, that I don't remember much of it at all. I think they covered "Moonlight Mile" and I remember being in a headlock...

But this time it started out with their new acoustic thing -- The Dirt Underneath -- and just didn't quite sound right. The guitar's were tinny, the pace kinda dragging, and Jason's absence notable. For the past few albums (since he joined the band), he's always come across as the pop classicist in the group -- something his new solo disc proves. His songs had more polish, more melody, and I've said this before but if a member of the band was gonna make a million dollars penning some radio country hit, it'll definitely be him. The Truckers missed that strong melodic presence in their set and, if I'm being totally honest, John Neff just isn't the guitarist Isbell is.

Either way, after Isbell had done everything but burn the place down earlier in the week, the Truckers had quite a challenge on their hands. Jason's a rare breed: not many solo artists are bold enough to play 2 hours plus sets with a brand new band on their first solo tour. In that span, he ran through the highlights of his debut, with the exception of "Shotgun Wedding", and touched most of his best Truckers' tunes too. And then he also covered "Psycho Killer", "Keep Your Distance" by Richard Thompson, "Into the Mystic", and "Jailbreak" by Thin Lizzy. Not all of those were perfect -- "Keep Your Distance" with its delicately picked guitar part was damn close -- but they showed off a range and a confidence I didn't quite expect.

So the Truckers may still have the pedigree, the name, the reputation, and while I hear things ended amicably, you have to think they're looking over their shoulder while Isbell starts blowing up.

Jason Isbell @ RnR Hotel - Setlist:
Down in a Hole / Grown / The Assassin (P. Hood) / Hurricanes and Hand Grenades / Never Gonna Change / Goddamn Lonely Love / Chicago Promenade / Brand New Kind of Actress / Decoration Day / Dress Blues / ("old Muscle Shoals song"?) / Outfit // When the Well Runs Dry / Keep Your Distance (R. Thompson) / Danko/Manuel / Psycho Killer (Talking Heads) / Try / In a Razor Town // Into the Mystic (Van Morrison) / Jailbreak (Thin Lizzy)

Jason Isbell - "Dress Blues" (live)
Jason Isbell - "Jailbreak" (live)

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