For a guy who notoriously gets pigeonholed into the category of an “Americana” musician (four Grammy Awards since 2016 — two for that very category and two under “American Roots” will do that to an artist), Jason Isbell knows a thing or two about flat-out rock ‘n’ roll.
Isbell and his stellar band, The 400 Unit, cranked through a blistering two-hour, 19-song setlist Thursday night at Red Butte Garden, one fueled by no less than 10 songs where the guitar chops of Isbell (a mix of rhythm and lead guitars) and lead axeman Sadler Vaden were out in full force.
The first three songs set the tone for the evening, with “Anxiety,” “Hope the High Road,” and the raucous “Go It Alone” keeping most of the capacity crowd on its feet and dancing.
Isbell then launched into the popular (and 2006 Grammy-winner) “24 Frames,” with its notably wry chorus on how quickly life can change:
You thought God was an architect
Now you know
He’s something like a pipe bomb
Ready to blow
And everything you built that’s all for show
Goes up in flames
In 24 frames
Vaden and Isbell took turns showing off their six-string wizardry on three Drive-By Truckers songs that Isbell penned during his six-year DBT stint from 2001-07 — “Danko/Manuel,” a nod to two members of roots-rock pioneers The Band, “Decoration Day,” a sullen, grunge-worthy, introspective song which Isbell has said was written about his own family, and the blistering “Never Gonna Change,” with Vaden delivering an over-the-top performance on his solos. Vaden even threw in some Pete Townshend-esque “windmill” licks for show, and mixed in some nimble work on the electric slide guitar on a couple of songs.
Following “24 Frames,” Isbell sang a new song, “Overseas” – a nice up-tempo song that references lost love, before transitioning to “Live Oak,” quite possibly his darkest song, one that references a man with a tortured, murderous past.
In some respects, it’s Isbell’s daft ability as a lyricist to tap into deep human emotions and paint a picture that is beautifully heart-wrenching and ever-so-poignant — in short, he writes songs that make you cry, period.
Isbell’s 2018 Grammy-winning song, “If We Were Vampires” from 2017’s exquisite “The Nashville Sound” album, came right in the middle of the set, and is exactly the type of song that inspires deep reflection about life’s relationships and the reality that we’re all going to die someday, no matter how long we get together in this life.
It’s not the long flowing dress that you’re in
Or the light coming off of your skin
The fragile heart you protected for so long
Or the mercy in your sense of right and wrong
It’s not your hands, searching slow in the dark
Or your nails leaving love’s watermark
It’s not the way you talk me off the roof
Your questions like directions to the truth
It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever
Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone
Maybe we’ll get forty years together
But one day I’ll be gone or one day you’ll be gone
Following that song, Isbell joked, “I used to play that song last ... then everybody started saying, ‘Man, you can’t play that last, I gotta go home after that. It’s just too sad! It’s too sad.’ So I play it in the middle of the set, and now I’ve got a bunch of happy, happy songs.” He then added, in a hushed voice, “I don’t, I don’t,” to which the crowd laughed.
Isbell concluded the exchange with, “Sometimes when you take a sad song and play it really, really fast it accidentally makes bluegrass music,” before launching into a rousing acoustic version of “Tour of Duty” — about a guy coming back from war and trying to fit back into society.
The band displayed its musical creativity on several of Isbell’s popular, acoustically dominant songs, including “Alabama Pines,” “Tupelo” and “Last of My Kind.” All three songs featured noteworthy levels of musicianship from the other 400 Unit members: Jimbo Hart on bass guitar, Derry deBorja on keyboards and accordion, and Chad Gamble on drums. “Last of My Kind” stood out, mainly for how the song escalates musically, rising from a simple, almost solo acoustic song to one where the intensity of each instrument is just fantastic — words just can’t do the song justice!
Other highlights of the set included: “Maybe It’s Time,” a beautiful song Isbell wrote for the remake of “A Star is Born,” and was sung in the movie by actor Bradley Cooper (prompting Isbell to deadpan afterward, “That Bradley Cooper’s a handsome man!”); “Flying Over Water” (a grungy, guitar-heavy song off his 2013 watershed album “Southeastern”); “Cover Me Up,” the last song before “Never Gonna Change” capped the set.
“Cover Me Up” has become a cult classic among Isbell’s die-hard fans, one that showcases his deep vocal range and innate ability to pour his soul into the mic. The end result is a powerfully riveting song about — what else? — the effort it takes to keep relationships together.
The encore featured covers of two deep cut gems from a half century ago: “Little Wing,” a popular Jimi Hendrix song from the 1967 album “Axis: Bold as Love”; and “Oh Well,” a single written by former Fleetwood Mac guitarist Peter Green in 1969 (pre-Buckingham/Nicks). Both songs had the crowd roaring with delight, a fitting conclusion to an epic night of music.