Jason Isbell

Show Review: Jason Isbell in Milwaukee with our best friends

Show Reviews

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Sept. 12 at Riverside Theater in Milwaukee

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I came late to the Jason Isbell party. I was a peripheral Drive-By Truckers fan during his tenure with Patterson Hood and the boys. I knew his voice stood out then and the lyrics he was singing were some of my favorite Truckers tracks. It wasn’t until “If We Were Vampires” came on my radio in 2017 that I stopped and asked myself, “Who is this?!”

I quickly devoured The Nashville Sound and began to delve further into the other albums and live recordings. I couldn’t get enough, and I still can’t. Since its release in June, Weathervanes has been in heavy rotation within my listening queue, and Isbell and the 400 Unit have been criss-crossing the country in support of it.

The band stopped in Milwaukee Tuesday, Sept. 12 to play to a sold-out Riverside Theater with opener Wednesday. With its 1990s female grunge sound, Wednesday seemed like an odd combo for an Isbell show, but it’s obvious he’s a fan.

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“I sure do love that band, Wednesday,” he told the crowd. “I sure am glad they came out here and did some songs for you. Those songs are so good, and they are great people, and they rock really fucking hard. When you talk about a band like that you have to try real hard not to say things that make you sound like you’re as fucking old as shit, like ‘I’m sure glad there are still young people playing rock and roll music.’ “

Well, even if they are “old as shit,” Isbell and company can still rock, too. The set opened with three brand new firecrackers from Weathervanes — “When We Were Close,” “Save the World” and “King of Oklahoma.”

“When We Were Close” and “Save the World” were pretty straightforward recitations of the album versions — which isn’t to say they didn’t bang; they most certainly did. It was the guitar interplay between Isbell and Sadler Vaden on “King of Oklahoma,” however, that set the place ablaze and established the notion that tonight was going to be special. The pair’s chemistry after playing together and trading licks for nearly 10 years is fraternal, and the joy they share on stage is evident and contagious.

Speaking of brothers, notably absent from this tour is original 400 Unit bassist Jimbo Hart, who has been taking some personal time to, in his own words “take care of my mental health and resolve some old-school traumas.” Filling in aptly has been Australian-born Anna Butterss. Butterss, who has called Los Angeles home since 2014, has been recording and touring with a host of artists including Phoebe Bridgers, Jenny Lewis, Bright Eyes and Aimee Mann — that is to say, she’s got chops. While longtime fans will certainly notice the visual difference, they’ll be hard pressed to identify any forfeiture of talent. Butterss seems to be holding her own quite well.

Isbell followed the guitar crescendo of “King of Oklahoma” with yet a fourth track off Weathervanes — the tender “Strawberry Woman” before taking us back to 2011 with the classic longing ode to the south “Alabama Pines” (which found the gentleman next to me singing so loud he drowned out Isbell himself, at least when he could remember the lyrics).

Another addition to the Unit on this tour is Will Johnson who has joined the fray for additional drums, percussion and guitar. Johnson has been a mainstay of the indie-rock scene for 35 years with bands like Funland and Monsters of Folk.

Isbell joked about adding a third and fourth drummer for future tours. “No, I think two’s enough. I guess we’ll see,” he said before Chad Gamble, who has steadfastly provided the heartbeat for the 400 Unit since 2008, counted the band off for the first single released from Weathervanes, “Deathwish.”

With Gamble on the payroll, one might wonder why the need for a second drummer at all. Earlier, Isbell recalled discovering Gamble in Milwaukee. “Didn’t we hire you in this city, Chad? We found him at Shank Hall, I think, wasn’t it?” If Isbell has been compared to Springsteen (and he has), then Gamble is his Mighty Max Weinberg — unfaltering and dependable — holding it all together on the kit.

Then there’s Derry DeBorja on keyboards and accordions. Another mainstay of the Unit, DeBorja has been with Isbell for well over a decade. He’s also been a member of alt-country godfathers Son Volt, so the line in Weathervanes’ “White Beretta” — “I was sitting at a red light, Listening to Son Volt, May the wind take your troubles away” — did not go unnoticed by the 400’s faithful fans in Milwaukee.

In addition to supporting Weathervanes, this tour is also paying homage to the 10-year anniversary of Isbell’s fourth studio album and the first on his own record label, both named Southeastern. Interestingly, Southeastern was Isbell’s first record with producer Dave Cobb. The two proceeded to work together on every 400 Unit album through 2020’s Reunions. Isbell produced Weathervanes himself.

Weathervanes certainly stands apart from previous releases. First and foremost, it is a grittier and more raw album. Perhaps no track on the record typifies that more than “This Ain’t It.” Isbell literally growls on the track. He and the Unit closed out the Milwaukee encore with a blistering 9-minute rendition that heralded back to the glory days of southern rock. Isbell and Vaden could have easily been Duane Allman and Dickey Betts closing out a raucous Allman Brothers Band show in 1970.

What mystifies me most about Isbell is his ability to compose extremely vivid and often distressing stories with engaging next-door-neighbor-type characters and soundtrack them to captivating melodies that I find myself humming hours later. And better yet, you truly believe he’s not a third-person narrator, but the protagonist, thus creating a deep connection with his listeners. As director Sam Jones says in the HBO/Music Box documentary “Jason Isbell: Running with Our Eyes Closed,” “Jason Isbell is one of those singer-songwriters who makes you feel like you know him and he knows you.”

A Jason Isbell show feels like hanging with your best friends — surrounded by people who “get you” — and you can’t wait to do it again.

http://www.jasonisbell.com

Enjoy our previous coverage here: Show Review: Jason Isbell at Brown’s Island in Richmond in August

Setlist:
When We Were Close
Save the World
King of Oklahoma
Strawberry Woman
Alabama Pines
Death Wish
White Beretta
Stockholm
Flying Over Water
Middle of the Morning
Overseas
Dreamsicle
Honeysuckle Blue (Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ cover)
Cast Iron Skillet
Miles
Cover Me Up

Encore:
24 Frames
If We Were Vampires
This Ain’t It

 

 

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