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Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Jason Isbell
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

(Lightning Rod)

There have been a few times that I realized Jason Isbell had that special something that sets an artist apart from the pack. At least a couple of those were when he was still the “kid” playing third guitar in the Drive-By Truckers off to the side of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. The first was hearing his song “Outfit”—a graceful ode to a father teaching his son a lesson about being poor and humble but also strong and proud—as an addition to the Truckers’ 2003 record Decoration Day. The next was his leading that band through a sublime version of the Stones’ eerie beauty “Moonlight Mile” on a summer evening at Lafayette Square. All that was before his exit from the Truckers—an event that remains cloudy since 2007 despite all the press release niceties about the split being “amicable”—and I wondered how he would fare on his own. He was the texture against the sometimes over-the-top Southern caricature that the two main Truckers were as much playing up as they were trying to redefine.

So I was waiting for him to do it again. It came about eight songs into his second solo album. There it was—another of those moments showing why Isbell is special. Back to back, there’s “No Choice in the Matter”—a song so steeped in Stax-style soul perfection, you’d swear the Swampers were sessioning on it circa 1970—followed by the Springsteenian epic “Soldiers Get Strange,” which ably pulls out every grand rock-and-roll stop you need (except maybe the obligatory sax solo) in a song about a GI’s return home. Isbell can convincingly do both these things and plenty more. There’s the blistering powerpop number “Good” and the twangy, hook-laden stomp of “However Long.” He closes with the exceptional “The Last Song I Will Write,” a stunningly crafted confessional and goodbye.

Isbell and his 400 Unit—along with Matt Pence of Centro-Matic/South San Gabriel co-producing, engineering and playing drums—strike the kind of balance that has eluded the singer/songwriter’s former band even at their best. While the Truckers’ Southern rock cabaret act at worst can sometimes come off as cartoonish but at its best has genuine muscle and guts, Isbell’s songs shed any of the good ol’ boy pantomime and replace them with a dignified sincerity elevated by his warm voice. He’s got all the muscle and guts but also a whole lot of heart.

donny kutzbach

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit make a stop in Buffalo on Thursday, March 5, at 9pm to play live at the Mohawk Place.

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