I distinctly remember the first time that I realized I really loved Jason Isbell’s music. I was in Nashville for Americanafest in 2017 and was watching the awards show at The Family Wash. He was joined on stage by Amanda Shires to perform “If We Were Vampires”. I can distinctly recall getting goosebumps watching their performance and from there on out I was a fan. To be fair, I wasn’t always. When his album The Nashville Sound came out, both “Cumberland Gap” and “Molotov” were played so often on satellite radio that I quickly grew tired of them both and would promptly change the channel, but that awards show performance canceled out those two overplayed songs and I knew I had to see Jason and The 400 Unit live.
It took almost two years, but I was able to make that happen. On the last Saturday night in June, at the BOK Center, which is the big concert and sports arena in Tulsa, Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit were there for a show, co-headlining with Father John Misty, with Erin Rae as the opener on the bill. As far as choices, this particular Saturday night was a tough night for music lovers around town. With two other Americana favorites in town, John Moreland at The Mercury Lounge and Charley Crockett at Cain’s Ballroom for his headliner debut, it was tough for folks to decide which stellar show they wanted to attend. Because of this, attendance was lower than one would anticipate for two major artists like Isbell and Father John Misty.
Once Josh Tillman, better known as Father John Misty, took the stage, I had no idea of what to expect. Although I have friends that are big fans, I hadn’t ever heard one song or attended a show. What I got was a set that started out with a sunglass wearing, bearded man, all in white, awash in dramatic pink and purple lighting and the dance moves that one would expect from a middle-aged white man. I mean that in a good way, as I thought the entire set from the first song “Hangout At The Gallows” to the encore song, “Date Night” was amazing. At one point, I thought I might get hit with a wayward mic stand as FJM slung it around on stage, using it as a prop as much as he used it to sing into. Later during the set, the mic flinging didn’t go as planned and Tillman quipped that “this trick only works about 50% of the time.” With his dry humor, Father John Misty introduced the song “Pure Comedy” as, “this one’s got some polarizing lyrics” and for a venue in the middle of the Bible Belt, he’s not wrong. However, it seemed as the Tulsa crowd thought Father John Misty could do no wrong, as each song was met with enthusiastic reactions. Although Amanda Shires accompanied FJM on two songs, “Well, You Can Do It Without Me” and “Chateau Lobby #4,” it was the third song that they sang that was the best part of this set. I’m told that the song, “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt” was not played any other night of the tour except for this night. Tillman on acoustic guitar, with the talented Amanda Shires harmonizing, was truly magic and I’m glad I got to witness it. There were other great parts of the set, the dynamic lighting, the quiet moments with one spotlight on FJM as he sang, but nothing beats the duet with Amanda.
Arena shows inevitably mean a long changeover between sets and for two headlining acts, this was no exception. After a 30 minute intermission, Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit took the stage to applause. Addressing the elephant in the room, Jason mentioned that attendance looked light, but only because “his haters like to buy up all the seats to make it look empty.” If Jason was disappointed by the smaller turnout, his playing didn’t reflect that, he jumped right into “Anxiety,” followed by “Hope The High Road” and “24 Frames”. Some gems from the set included a cover of the Fleetwood Mac song, “Oh Well”, Jason’s newest song, “Overseas” and the song he wrote for A Star is Born, “Maybe It’s Time.” Although Jason and his songs are the stars of the show, you realize how much the musicians that make up The 400 Unit contribute to making good songs into great songs. With Sadler Vaden on guitar, Jimbo Hart on bass, Derry deBorja on keys, Amanda Shires on fiddle, and Chad Gamble on drums, you know you’re going to be watching not only a group of musicians with immense talent, but also a group of people that have great chemistry and make watching them interact fun. With the spotlights on Jason and Amanda, one of my two favorite songs, “Cover Me Up” was played, as well as the last song of the set, “If We Were Vampires.” I have to admit, I was so excited to see that Amanda would be playing some of the last shows with Jason and the rest of The 400 Unit. The chemistry between Shires and Isbell is mesmerizing to watch in person. From the coy glances while they sing, to the coming together to play fiddle and guitar, to walking off stage arm in arm, it’s simply beautiful to behold. After the band left the stage, the crew set up three mics in a row and the crowd was enthusiastic when they realized that Father John Misty would be joining Jason and Amanda on stage for the encore song, “Wrecking Ball,” which Jason mentioned was one of his favorite songs. This was the second time during the show that Tulsa got to experience something special, as this was the only show that Father John Misty joined Jason for an encore song.
Although the co-headlining tour is over, you can still catch Jason and The 400 Unit, as well as Father John Misty out on tour.
Jason Isbell: http://www.jasonisbell.com
Father John Misty: http://fatherjohnmisty.com/#tour