It was a lesson in songwriting. But it was so much more than that, too.
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit played to a sold-out house at UB's Center for the Arts on Tuesday, and more than delivered on the buzz that has been building around Isbell over the past several years. This guy has been touted as the finest roots music-based songwriter of his generation, and one need only listen to his last three albums to confirm such claims.
But on the concert stage, Isbell made it clear that he is also a serious musician, an amazing band-leader, a soulful and transcendent singer, and a man who has chosen his bandmates wisely.
Fans fond of Isbell's poetic, introspective songwriting and supple, finger-picked acoustic guitar figures in the general folk-Americana field might've been surprised by the raw power of the 400 Unit.
At times, the band brought elements of the Who's majestic cacophony to bear on Isbell's immaculately crafted tunes, as guitarist Sadler Vaden punctuated the proceedings with walloping power chords and searing melodic lines and the rhythm section drove the point home.
When it was in full-on rocking mode, the 400 Unit – in addition to Isbell and Vaden, bassist Jimbo Hart, Isbell's wife, violinist and harmony vocalist Amanda Shires, drummer Chad Gamble and keyboardist Derry deBorja – crafted a wall of sound that was exhilarating.
But part of the brilliance in evidence here resulted from the absolutely masterful manipulation of dynamic range, such that the ensemble could move from graceful bombast to intimate delicacy at will. This serves Isbell the songwriter incredibly well, because his are narratives rich in detail and emotional heft.
One wants to hear the lyrics, the detail in Isbell's heart-rending tenor as it serves his stories, the compelling push and pull between the winsome melodies and earthy realism in the words those melodies serve. Thanks to the musicians' unerring ability to manipulate light and shade in service of the song, we were offered the true rock fan's dream – a gig that blended power and nuance.
The set list offered a heavy dose of the most recent album, last year's "The Nashville Sound," but did deliver representative bits from that album's predecessors, "Southeastern" and "Something More Than Free." Of course, elements of country-folk ("Last of My Kind"), Southern soul ("Tupelo," Codeine"), and rock ("Chaos and Clothes," "Stockholm") commingled, because that's what Isbell does.
However, it was impossible to take this for granted in the concert setting, because the pure power of the band's performance drove home the reality that Isbell is defying conventional stylistic cubby-holing. He's pushing the envelope, and his audience is eager to go there with him, which is something that happens far less than it should in the world of popular music.
Throughout the evening, Isbell took periodic guitar solos that can only be described as heroic. He is a serious guitar player. If that was all he did, we'd still be talking about him.
The most moving portions of the show, however, were the most intimate ones. Isbell's finest songs speak of the search for some sort of transcendence, and we recognize ourselves in his characters as they fall like drunks on the bar-room floor, only to pick themselves up, dust themselves down, and brave the daylight one more time, hell-bent on finding some sort of redemption.
Isbell seems to have found some of his own through his relationship with Shires, and the stability that love and family can bring. But he' seen the darkness more than a few times, and even his most gorgeous love songs bravely acknowledge that wolf that is forever at the door. The evening's final encore, "If We Were Vampires," does this as well as any song in the recent history.
"It's knowing that this can’t go on forever," Isbell and Shires sang to each other, in harmony. "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/and one day, you'll be gone."
Maybe these lines doesn’t leap off the page and grab you, but if you were there hearing Isbell and Shires sing them, your heart was surely melted.
James McMurtry and his band opened the evening with a short but powerful set, the highlight of which was the wry-but-wistful "No More Buffalo," a song that offers ample evidence of McMurtry's unerring ability to craft songs that come across as brilliant pieces of short fiction. The man's entire catalog is worth exploring. If you've never caught him live, the next time he passes through the Sportsmen's Tavern, you need to clear the calendar and get there.
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit
Tuesday night in the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts