Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit at Merriweather Post Pavilion

Last night I finally got the chance to see Jason Isbell play a show in Maryland. This is the fifth time I’ve seen him live, but oddly the first time in the Baltimore area. The other times he has been at Merriweather he was opening for other bands, and I gladly would have gone just to see him open but I was out of town both times I’m aware of. I actually traveled home from Cape Cod on the day of this concert specifically so I could go to it. I’m very glad I did because it was a great show as always.

Normally when I go to Merriweather I just get lawn seats, but when I bought the tickets I thought I was going to have to drag my husband to go with me. I figured he would be marginally less grumpy about it if we had actual seats in the pavilion. Luckily I found a friend to go with me, so he was spared. The couple of other times I’ve sat inside of the pavilion I haven’t scored seats nearly as close. We were in the right center section about halfway up, so definitely the closest I’ve ever been to the stage at Merriweather. I appreciated actually getting to see the stage for real instead of through the screens for a change.

The Mountain Goats were the opening band. They are one of those bands that I feel like I should like, but I just don’t. I always hear people on NPR music going on about them, which generally means they should be in my wheelhouse, but I had never heard anything by them that inspired me to look into them more. I thought maybe seeing them play would ignite some sort of passion for me, but it didn’t. I didn’t really care for most of the songs they played. So I guess the Mountain Goats are just not for me.

Jason Isbell is, however, very much for me. I’ve been meaning to write up something about his most recent album, The Nashville Sound, which came out a couple of weeks ago. With all the traveling I’ve been doing I just didn’t get the chance. Since they played the majority of the songs from the album I’ll just roll my thoughts on it in here. That way everyone just has one post to ignore instead of two.

Jason Isbell’s last two albums were credited just to him, but the new album brings the return of his band The 400 Unit. It’s a much more rock driven album than Southeastern or Something More Than Free. Since they’re touring promoting The Nashville Sound obviously they focused on playing songs from it, making it a much more rock focused concert than some of the other shows I’ve seen.

Even with the move back to his more Southern rock roots of his Drive-by Truckers years the songs are still incredibly soulful and full of poignant lyrics that drill right into your heart. A good number of the songs on the new album seem very focused on our political times from “Cumberland Gap” and “Last of My Kind” looking at life in small towns and the way people there feel as the world changes around them to songs like “Hope the High Road” and “White Man’s World” that grapple with waking up in a world where people actually voted for Donald Trump to be president and wondering how that happened and coming to terms with white privilege as a white man. There’s also “Anxiety”, the song they opened the show with last night, which really has nothing to with politics but speaks very much to my anxious personality that is only be exacerbated by this political morass we’re living in.

Also from the new album they played “Something to Love”, which is one of the more folk country songs on the album as opposed to the more rock driven stuff. Also in the non-rock genre from that album was the first song of their encore, “If We Were Vampires”, which is the most heartbreakingly beautiful love song you’ll ever hear. It’s all about cherishing the one you love most of all because you know of the limited time you have with them on this earth. As someone who constantly tells my husband that he is not allowed to die first, the lines

“Maybe time running out is a gift
I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift
And give you every second I can find
And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind”

kill me every time I hear them.

The rest of the show was a mix of songs off of Southeastern and Something More than Free as well as “Decoration Day” and “Never Gonna Change” from his time with the Drive-by Truckers, which he has played at every show I’ve been to so they seem to be standard in his set. “Cover Me Up” was beautiful as always, though I noticed that the cheers for the line “But I sobered up and I swore off that stuff forever this time” seemed much more muted than I’ve experienced in the past. I suspect he’s starting to gain more followers that aren’t as familiar with his backstory. I was also very happy that they played “The Life You Chose” because it’s my favorite song off the Something More than Free album and they didn’t play it either of the previous times I saw them after that album came out.

I saw Jason Isbell tweet earlier in the year that he was going to take a year off from playing festivals and just play venues where he could headline and do a real full set for his fans. I very much appreciate that decision. I am tired of the 8 billion music festivals that exist these days. Pretty much it seems like musical acts are caught up doing nothing but traveling from festival to festival for 6 months out of the year these days, so if you don’t happen to have a music festival near year or can’t/don’t want to pay to go to one then you’re out of luck to see anyone. Plus festival sets are always short. You’re lucky if you get a full hour. I very much love that I got see Jason Isbell play a full two hour set last night with a crowd of people who were there to specifically to see him.

Having that full two hours really did change the dynamic of the show from the previous times I’ve seen him. Two of the times were in fact short hour or less festival sets at the Newport Folk Festival. Last year he was supposed to headline the show I was seeing, but then they moved the show to a larger venue and added Chris Stapleton as the headliner. Technically I think they were supposed to be co-headlining, but it didn’t feel like it. It felt like Jason Isbell was the second opening act for Chris Stapleton, who the crowd was definitely there to see. I did see him headline at the 9:30 Club when touring for Southeastern, so he did have a slightly longer set there but was also sick at the time and probably at that point figuring out what his stage personality was going to be like as someone performing newly sober. He definitely did not do a whole lot of between songs talking during that performance either.

Last night with the full two hours it seemed like he felt like had room to breathe. He joked around a lot, he told stories to intro songs, he repeatedly expressed how grateful he was to be there and how much he doesn’t take it for granted. He also introduced every member of the band no less than three times to make sure we knew it’s not just about him up there, but every member of the 400 Unit too. I very much love how much you can tell that he just loves playing music and is appreciating every second of where he is right now. And also the best moment of the night when he started talking to his almost two year old daughter, Mercy, who I then realized was standing just off stage for part of the show. Isbell is married to Amanda Shires who sometimes plays fiddle with the 400 Unit and when they are touring together they bring their daughter along. It was a very sweet moment as was watching him pick up his wife and carry her off stage in giddy happiness at the end of the night after they closed out with a lit performance of The Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post”. It was a wonderful show as always.

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