Rock And Roll Redemption At The Armory. Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit


Welcome to December!  Any time I can walk on clear dry pavement into a venue wearing a light jacket, life is good.  It’s even better when the opener is a great rock and roll band.  

A Strand of Oaks hails from that hotbed of music, Austin, TX.  I’d seen their name roughly 15,000 times but never caught them live.  I love it when I can add another band to my playlists.  

Sometimes the manner in which an opener fits is a mystery.  Last night, it made all the sense in the world.  Tim Showalter’s band rolls right down the middle of the rock and roll highway.  No pretense.  Big guitars and monster chops.  The kind of humility that fits with the likes of Jason Isbell.

He proclaimed he’d played Minneapolis more times than he could count.  He loved the city because he’d never had a bad show.  Last night was no exception.  The guitar ripped Start All Over blew the walls out and made me a fan.

Here’s something I found really funny and hope to never hear again.  Showalter stepped to the mic at the end of the set and thanked the crowd.  “This is our last song.  But don’t worry.  It’s a real long one!”  8000 fans waiting for the headliner!  And then they knocked it out of the park.  Halfway through it, I was glad it was a long jam.

Last night’s Armory show by Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit was rescheduled from the Covid wasteland of 2020.  Most of us don’t think about the sheer logistics of mounting a show that fills an 8,000 cap room like downtown Minneapolis’ Armory.  Local/regional acts were able to get back on their feet more quickly; they don’t have the overhead.  Bands that were already planning 2021 tours jumped to the front of the line simply because they didn’t have to dismantle before rebuilding everything.  Bands that fall into that category somewhere between icon and regional act may well have had it hardest.  Most of them are still working hard to make a living, albeit in many cases a pretty comfortable one.  I don’t think folks like The Stones or Elton John took a financial hit that was hard to weather.  No wonder bands like The 400 Unit radiate something between joy and relief when they hit the stage.

My biggest take away from last night’s show was what the venue meant when the artist is named Jason Isbell.  Maybe rock and roll dreams really do come true.  If so, he’s one of the poster boys.  The man brought a generational raw talent to his early career.  He battled demons that might well have kicked him to the curb were it not for that prodigious gift.  He hit the re-set button on both career and life.  Paid those dues again and continues to climb.  That’s an inspiration.

It also seems as American as hell.  About needing nothing more than an opportunity.  Jason Isbell’s music is about as American as you can get.  I spent the evening hanging with a handful of young, local musicians.  Between songs and after the show, we talked about where the guy fits.  Every generation has a small handful of bands that fit the definition of quintessential American Rock Band.  Creedence Clearwater met it.  Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers met it.  The Foo Fighters continue to meet it.  Isbell is getting close.

Those of us who have been singing his praises since the early Drive By Truckers days say: welcome to the club.  (Quick question, can you name another band besides The Beatles that featured three songwriter/frontmen the caliber of Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell?  Answer:  Nope.  Go back and spin albums like Southern Rock Opera or The Dirty South.  The former saved the band members’ lives.  The latter goes with me to the desert island.)

Isbell evolves.  He’s earned his success.  Filling The Armory is a testament to the power of rock and roll to both destroy and redeem.  We acknowledge that when really smart music head debate which albums or era constitutes an artist’s best work.  Isbell fans do it all the time.

I’m going to sidestep that debate because there is no right or wrong.  Jason Isbell is simply an artist.  His music has always been as much a reflection of himself at any given time as it is about being better or best.  The man is in the process of producing a deep, deep catalog.  It’s fascinating to consider the entire arc.  Think about your favorite artists.  The album that galvanized you is probably not the one everybody wants to talk about.  It says something about evolution and the quality of art being produced.  It’s the hallmark of those that endure.

Isbell has been doing songs that have stayed with me for the last quarter century.  We got a few of those last night.  He closed the show with the defiant DBT classic, Ain’t Never Gonna Change.  Interesting to note one of his tour shirts is emblazoned with that very phrase.  However, folks, the man has changed.  He’s changed a lot.  

By the time Isbell left the Truckers, his life looked a shambles.  It’s one thing to leave a successful band.  It’s another thing entirely to leave a family.  DBT was a family kind of band.  That happens when you’re doing bars over 200 nights a year.  Year after year.  Add to that the fact that he was married to the bass player.  DBT was a hard drinking band.  It put some damage on the man.

He left and put together the solo effort Sirens Of The Ditch.  It contains moments of brilliance despite its darkness and often utter despair.  Isbell was doing what Isbell has always done.  Use his music as an expression of his state in life.  That becomes a bit clearer in retrospect.  Those DBT songs had these dark shadows.  But they were cast upon another character.  A character headed for a fall.  

Songs like Dress Blues spoke to me as much about the utter tragedy of a small town boy who crosses an IED in Iraq or Afghanistan as it is about beginning to flirt with his own mortality.  Inside the pain, there’s almost a cry to be able to go out with honor intact.  It’s a powerful expression of pain.  A willingness to cut open a vein and expose yourself through your art.  Takes enormous courage.  It takes enormous courage to take on those demons and walk back into the light.

The self titled follow up with The 400 Unit catches him in a similar state and allowed him to settle in with a band.  An approach, I believe is where he shines brightest.  The band’s second, Here We Rest is a master work.  It reflects the stages of his recovery.  The songs span the emotional gamut of a person trying to stay on the righteous path and find life again.  There’s loneliness, reminiscence, humor and hope.  For anyone who has struggled with addiction, it is a serious gaze into the mirror.

The first time I saw The 400 Unit was shortly after he’d left the Truckers.  He stopped into The Turf Club (a place he played on a number of occasions and got a shout out last night).  An adolescent son had dragged my wife and I out to see this up and coming band called Arctic Monkeys in The Mainroom.  That show was all ages, started early and allowed us to make it to The Turf just as The 400 Unit took the  stage.  No worries about walking in last minute.  Our arrival brought the total audience to about a dozen.  We leaned against the monitors and watched magic.

The most enduring memory of the night was my wife, angry.  Spitting fire.  Upset that this man, who was such a prolific writer and rock and roll soul, was playing to an empty club.  She found it a terrible injustice.  As a woman who went on to raise a band herself, it was a first hard lesson that the music business is far from a meritocracy.  As for myself, I counted myself lucky.  And I knew that if the man survived, his music would take him back to some promised land.  

One of the friends I had in tow is a remarkable young musician named Bonno Getz; recently arrived from Rotterdam.  Figured this would be a great dose of American music.  Imagine my shock when he informed me that some 5 or 6 years ago as a young teen, a friend had dragged him out to De Oosterpoort in Groningen, Netherlands to see The 400 Unit.  It wasn’t quite a Turf Club experience but it was similar in that the band was playing a club with maybe a 100 people.  In many respects, Bonno also experienced that rocket ride from small to something as popular as he is these days.

Early in last night’s set, Isbell looked up into the club level, stage left.  He greeted his young daughter.  Told her Daddy loved her.  Then played her favorite song before she had to head home and get to bed.  I saw a man in love with his life.  When I compared it to that first night at The Turf, I was moved to tears.  I truly believe Music literally saves lives.  I bet my bottom dollar Jason believes it, too.

I began by saying how often I’ve watched the man perform.  Was last night my favorite Jason Isbell show?  No.  Was it the most satisfying?  Yes.  It felt like redemption.

Somewhere along the line, Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit began to make music that was more universal.  Rather than needing to exorcise demons, the emotions are now directed at things like his happy home.  When anger flashes, it’s a commentary on society’s ills, not personal failings.  That makes his newer music much more relatable across a broad spectrum of fans.  They come in droves.  I suspect that many late additions simply see a humble, heartfelt man who can play the strings off a guitar.  Lyrics speak to them on some gut level.  He’s so much more than that.

Consider Vampires, a love song about the pain that comes from understanding that 40 years from now, he and his wife will inevitably have to say goodbye.  He judges the immortality joining the undead to be a price fairly paid.  Isbell expresses love now by reflecting on the pain that would be caused by losing it.  Those dark shadows are still there and he acknowledges them.  For the time being, he controls them rather than the other way around.

I watched couples embrace, hold hands and slow dance with each other.  I turned to my young companions and asked:  “Ever wonder how many times Vampires has been played at weddings?”  They looked at me like I’d just grown a brain and pronounced:  “Millions!”  I suspect for many of these fans it’s simply the most romantic song they’ve ever heard.  I find so much more behind it.  It speaks to his redemption and the place where he is in his life these days.

There wasn’t much in the set that took us back in time to darker days.  That said, he electrified the crowd with Goddamn Lonely Love from 2011.  That to me, is the quintessential contrast that is Jason Isbell.  My favorite moments throughout a rock solid set list included an unexpected rocker he handed off to former Drivin’ and Cryin’ guitarist Sadler Vaden.  Let those over saturated southern rock guitars burn, boys!  And  again with the aforementioned closer Never Gonna Change.  We danced and pumped our fists.  Rock and roll rebellion.

These days, the stories he tells take center stage.  They dominate the urge to let those six strings scream.  That’s okay.  I know there will be times ahead he’ll indulge that inner rocker.  Where he’ll let loose of the kind of restraint that keeps a man on the road and out of the ditch.  That hard rock soul is a big part of who he’s always been.  As Isbell and Vaden slashed at each other in the closer, I thought to myself:  And on the 8th day God, well rested, went back to work.  He created the Electric Guitar.  Placed it in the hands of a Southern man.  He looked down upon it and judged it Good.