Jason Isbell – Live @ Smiths Olde Bar

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Last year, it seemed every time I turned around, I was reviewing something related to my favorite Southern Rock band,  the Drive-By Truckers.  This included a DBT CD, a solo project by its leader, a “rare tracks” CD, and a solo CD by a former member.

It’s 2010, and not much has changed.  I’ve already been to a DBT concert, listened to their new (soon to be reviewed) CD, and attended the subject of this post, a concert by their former member.  They’re all really good musicians, but they’re taking up a lot of my time!

It’s a good thing I like their stuff.  And so it was Wednesday night that I saw Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit perform “acoustic” at Smith’s Olde Bar, a long lived venue for local and emerging artists.  The first floor of Smith’s is a restaurant and bar, which (aside from the cigarette smoke), is the type of refuge that I can only dream of being a short walk from my house.  Great bar food, a good variety of beers, pool tables, dart boards, song selections, great vibe… and then there’s the second floor with a stage of sufficient size and room enough for 300 people.

First, in the event that my time-proven “concert buddy” should read this, he’s on thin ice.  He’s 0-3 after this show despite his best intentions.  Bah humbug.  So, instead I invited one of my best friends, who hasn’t been to a concert since the dinosaurs walked the earth and who, not surprisingly, has never heard of Jason Isbell.  Yet, on a couple hours notice, he said “yes” to a departure from his weeknight routine.  Thanks!

We arrived early, and after tasty and sizable burgers, aided with various draughts, we headed upstairs 15 minutes after the doors opened.  Sadly, the only nearest available table was 4’ to the left of front and center, so we had to settle for slightly left and center, a real hardship… 

Around 9:00, Abbie Owens and Vic Stanley opened the entertainment.  Owens on first look seems young enough to assume that she’s inexperienced.  However, the arriving crowd were quick to buy Vic Stanley, Jason Isbell, Abbie Owensinto her music, which centered on fairly catchy acoustic rock or alt-country tunes, with a distinctive soulful voice.  Stanley accompanied her on lead guitar, and their voices melded well.  Most of her songs were originals, but covers of Springsteen and Little Feat shone as well.   Isbell watched early from the side, and he joined for several songs in the middle of their set. 

Isbell and crew took the stage soaking up what had become a sizable crowd.  One obvious carryover from his DBT days is the shared bottle of Jack Daniels, but otherwise, even when covering his older songs, it was obvious that this was Isbell’s show, not a restated DBT.

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit

That’s not to say that the 400 unit wasn’t great. Accompanying guitarist, Browan Lollar, played many great lead lines and was otherwise a study of restrained motion seated in his chair.  Bassist Jimbo Hart was always into the groove, and Derry deBorja’s keyboards were always tasteful and supportive of the tone.  The drummer played each song perfectly, but, as importantly, loud enough to keep the crowd in check.  Lollar also led a cover of “Psycho Killer,” which was a great inclusion.  It was ample proof that an “acoustic” show by no means implies low volume.

Lollar and Isbell

Isbell plays with no pretenses – there’s no Bono grandstanding, and no star treatment is expected.  As concerts go, he spoke with the crowd more than most, and he was clearly enjoying the acoustic approach to his songs.  He played a good variety of songs from his two solo CDs, including “In a Razor Town,” Jason Isbell “The  Magician,” “Try,” “Grown,” “Cigarettes and Wine,” “Soldiers Get Strange,” and a rousing “Chicago Promenade.”

His DBT era songs received more audience response, naturally, but it was clear that each of these songs are, and always have been, Isbell’s.  He included “Decoration Day,” “TVA,” “The Day John Henry Died,” a stirring “Danko/Manuel,” “Goddamn Lonely Love,” and my favorite, “Outfit.”

The sound was great, and it was awesome to watch a very talented artist perform in such an intimate setting.

Following are a sampling of videos for those with an interest.  Additional photos of the show can be viewed by clicking HERE.


Abbie Owens:

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