Live Last Night: Jason Isbell

So this is why Jason Isbell didn't want to stick with the Drive-By Truckers, feeling like Joe Walsh: Because he's as confident and magnetic a frontman as he is prolific and able a songwriter.

We already knew Isbell could pair a pithy lyric to an indelible hook and sell it with a clean, sympathetic delivery --his contributions to three DBT albums circa 2003-6, and the two strong records he's made since, told us that. But the 105-minute controlled-burn he and his band, the 400 Unit, lit up at the 9:30 Club last night unmasked Isbell as the runner-up to nobody, a blonde-pompadoured demon-spawn of Bruce Springsteen, Carlos Santana, and Buck Owens.

(Read the rest of the review after the jump.)

The latter seems the least of Isbell's current influences -- the twang-clinations of his Trucker years are largely gone now, replaced by the stratospheric hum of a fluid, muscular five-piece rock-and-soul band. The group imbued each number with such visceral punch that almost any one of them could have been the finale and it wouldn't have felt wrong.

Isbell set the more-is-more tone right from the opener, an eight-minute-extrapolation of "Brand New Kind of Actress," an insistent rocker of the Rolling Stones school. Its opening line, "You said you'd heard of me" resonated more than Isbell might've wanted, sung to a half-full room, but if he was troubled by all that vacant real estate, he didn't show it. "It's an honor to play the 9:30 club, the best club in America," he announced humbly after the tune thundered to a close.

The 16-song set he went on to piece together found room for many of his sturdiest DBT numbers (the aching "Goddamn Lonely Love," "Never Gonna Change"), but was surprisingly light on material from his new, self-titled 400 Unit album. Other curve balls? How 'bout the Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer," repurposed as a gnarly rocker and sung by guitarist Brownan Lollar? Great song, great performance, lousy timing: It followed two excellent cost-of-war tunes -- the new "Soldiers Get Strange" and the already-classic "Dress Blues," dedicated to fallen Marine Matthew Conley -- giving the story-arc of psychological erosion and violence an unintentionally flippant coda. Anywhere else in the set would have been better.

The encores quickly righted the ship: Based on how the crowd bayed along, "Outfit" remains the most beloved of Isbell's DBT numbers as well as his best. "Hurricanes and Hand Grenades" is a slice of humid Southern soul you wish Otis Redding or Ray Charles could've sung, and "The Assassin" -- well, that's a song by Pattersoon Hood, who missed the Truckers' two 9:30 shows last month on account of pneumonia. Isbell wished his former bandmate a speedy recovery and dedicated the performance to him. So he puts on a good act, maybe, but anybody who can tear it up like this ain't no Southern gentleman.


By J. Freedom du Lac |  March 2, 2009; 11:27 AM ET Live Last Night
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It's a DBT fan's fiesta - DB's drive by, Isbell follows within a month, and Klimek covers 'em.


Posted by: NickPayne | March 2, 2009 12:50 PM

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