It was a long drive from Cincinnati for Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, but the crowd at the Memorial Union Terrace on Friday night certainly seemed to appreciate it. The vibrant scene and cool Lake Mendota breezes were a perfect compliment to Isbell's smooth southern charms and solid backing band.
Winding his way across the country after having recently split from his former band, Drive-By Truckers, Isbell is on tour in support of his own freshly minted album Sirens of the Ditch. This latest New West Records release continues to bring the same guitar heavy southern sway Isbell honed while with the Truckers.
As a standout songwriter among the very capable skills of Paterson Hood and Mike Cooley, Isbell lent his raspy voice and electric leads to albums such as 2003's Decoration Day and 2004's The Dirty South. The band had toured, and drank, heavily over the past several years and continue to do so, with John Neff and Spooner Oldham now sitting in.
At the Terrace, Isbell wound his drawl around a few mid-tempo, if not melancholy, tunes before turning over lead vocals to his guitar player for a cover of the Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer." Only one other discernable cover song, "Please Be With Me" from Clapton's 1974 album 461 Ocean Blvd, embedded itself within the two sets of Isbell originals.
It is a good sign that a musical group is working well when the members of the band sing along, even when they're not in front of a microphone. The 400 Unit, a tight four piece that includes electric bass and guitar along with drums and keyboards, all mouthed the words consistently. Their musicianship was very strong; the song "Decoration Day" built to a frenzied Wah-pedal and harmonics laden jam before the group took a short break.
A particular highlight of the first set was to watch the band take turns chugging from a bottle of Jack Daniel's. Isbell took over the right hand rhythm of the bassist and then snare duties for the drummer so that the music would continue as the bottle went from nearly full to nearly empty in a quick and inebriating minute.
And that's the way they roll: Hard driving, hard drinking, and hard rocking southern soul with touches of both celebration and sadness throughout. Isbell continues to be the triple-threat: an excellent songwriter, singer, and guitar player with tone that conjures sips of cool sweet tea at the end of a long hot day's drive.