This last Saturday, I did something that I don't often do anymore: I saw a show that I won't write about. Saturday was my birthday, and I decided to hold a party down at Neurolux, where Vagabond Promotions had set up a solid folk-oriented bill. I figured that I wouldn't be in any shape to take coherent notes or write a decent post about that show, and boy was I right. From what I can recall, however, the show was a very good one (although I did kinda wish that The Mighty Sequoyah had brought their drummer along).
Anyway, in spite of my horrendous hangover the next day, I headed down to the VAC in the evening. I wasn't about to miss the act headlining there for some mere difficulty holding down food or walking upright.
I'd known of Jason Isbell through his time with my favorite modern (i.e. touring, recording) band, the Drive-By Truckers. I loved his songs on two fine albums of theirs, 2003's Decoration Day and 2004's The Dirty South, but I'd never seen him live. So, when I learned of this show, I immediately marked it down on my calendar.
As I'd expected, there was a respectable turnout. I counted about forty people there when I arrived, and I think that at least another twenty or thirty had rolled in by the time that the first act had wrapped up. I got a cup of water and found a seat by the bar. I didn't even want to think about beer at that point.
First up this night was Futurebirds, a six-man band from Athens, GA. Their folk-country tunes, steady tempos, simple basslines, serene pedal steel and raw guitar solos had Neil Young and Crazy Horse written all over them. That was all right by me--readers familiar with this blog will know that I love me some Neil Young. Even I have to admit, however, that you could do a lot better when it comes to finding models for singing, and Young was George Jones compared to the pinched, nasally, affected whines of Futurebirds' vocalists. In the end, though, the music itself won out thanks in particular to a couple of soul and southern rock numbers, the soloing and some driving, swinging drumwork. The touch of shoegaze in the guitars added a nice little wrinkle as well.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, played next. Isbell didn't quite have the laconic cool of Mike Cooley or the big-ol'-teddy-bear charm of Patterson Hood, but his stage presence was far from awkward or aloof: he punctuated his set with plenty of warm jokes (plenty of which were on himself), stories and dedications. More importantly, he commanded attention and then some in the ways that really mattered: with his voice, his guitar and his songs.
He opened strong with "Go It Alone," a tough, jangly rocker, and then landed an early knockout punch with his feuding-families epic "Decoration Day." From there, he and his crack band blazed through an assortment of his solo songs and old DBT material. Of the former, my favorites included "Tour of Duty," a redemptive country number about a young soldier coming home ("I guess this is one of the less sad songs that I have," Isbell quipped), and "Try," a cold-eyed blues grind about a man who's desperate to make a woman stay but knows that he can't. The latter included the world-weary "Goddamn Lonely Love," the father's advice of "Outfit" and a "Danko/Manuel" that went out to those two and their recently departed Band-mate, Levon Helm. Throughout the entire set, Isbell delivered blistering solos and sang his finely crafted melodies and lyrics with the finesse and assurance of a man ten or twenty years older than him (he's only 33). The 400 Unit backed him up every step of the way with rubbery bass, thoughtful keyboard parts and protean drumming (Isbell's drummer, Chad Gamble, also did a fine job singing lead on one irresistibly danceable song). The crowd gave this performance the reception it deserved: they cheered, boogied and sang along to the choruses and the verses. This was unquestionably one of the best shows that I've seen this year so far.
The VAC show would've made my night complete, but it didn't end there. A fine musician whom I saw back in June, Kasey Anderson, was back in town for a gig with Counting Crows and had announced on Facebook that he'd be playing a free midnight show at Neurolux. I headed straight over after Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit finished and, to my delight, found a crowd at least four or five times bigger than the one that saw Anderson's last appearance here. That number grew as more folks from the VAC showed up.
Anderson and his backing band, the Honkies, kicked things off with a handful of original songs, my favorite of which was the Stones-ish rocker "Mercy." After that, they shared the stage with a rotating group of musicians (including Jason Isbell and Counting Crows guitarist David Immergluck) and launched into a wonderfully loose, action-packed jam session that went on right up until closing time and included searing takes on Bob Dylan's "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" and Neil Young's "Like A Hurricane." Between this show and the one at the VAC, I don't think I've ever heard so many mind-blowing guitar solos in a single night.
You can find info on these groups on Facebook and elsewhere online. Oh, and if "Debbie Gibson" is reading this, Jason Isbell says hello.