Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit and Father John Misty were joined by Jade Bird at the Huntington Bank Pavilion in Chicago.
It was a distinctly dreary evening in Chicago as the audience filed into the Huntington Bank Pavilion, with the stage and raised seating around the venue eerily silhouetted in the mist. Fortunately, the audience didn’t need to wait long for a distraction from the miserable weather.
An impressive number of people had turned up early despite the weather to catch Jade Bird’s opening set and from the moment she took the “longer than she thought” walk out to her mic it was clear why. Bird has been creating waves in the UK for a while now and the fact she has landed a spot opening for artists of this caliber in the US is testament to her talent.
Bird grew up an army child, traveling and living in a number of different places and she has noted how this has influenced her music. The songwriting ability she displays on her EP and self-titled album (released this year) certainly belies the fact that she’s only in her early twenties. She has a great lens on the world and there’s little doubt that she’s going to be an artist that will just continue to get better as she casts that lens on the world around her.
Opening up with the foot-stomping “Uh Huh” she breezed through a 30-minute set which showcased her powerful voice and the quality of her writing. She easily bantered with the crowd throughout, noting that everyone must think she was a “right cow” for complaining about the weather when she was nice and dry under the roof of the stage.Following Bird’s performance, the audience was suitably warmed up and ready for Father John Misty to take to the stage. Tillman and the band got straight into it with “Hangout at the Gallows.” From the moment he steps behind the mic, it’s clear that Tillman is an artist who immerses himself totally in his performance and it makes him a magnetic character to watch.
Listening to his music and watching him perform, it feels like the filter between him and the outside world isn’t as substantial as it is for most of us and, as a result, he seems to be mainlining his life experience which must often be to the detriment of his mental health. It means, however, that there is real sincerity behind every word he writes. Whether it be his experience of love, religion or politics, what you are getting in his music is him – unfiltered and honest.
The audience was right there with him throughout the set even if he wanted to keep expectations low – exclaiming at one point that he wanted to see “10 people in the crowd clapping to this one.” Highlights of the set included “Mr Tillman,” “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)” and “We’re Only People (And There’s Not Much Anyone Can Do About That)” which was pulled out for the first time on this tour. As people danced and sang along to closer “I love you HoneyBear,” nobody seemed concerned anymore that they were enveloped in the cold mist rolling in from Lake Michigan.Loud Hailer covered Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit when they played the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago back in September 2018 and it’s fair to say that they are a favorite of the website. In the review of the Auditorium show, we noted that there was something of a feel of Petty and the Heartbreakers about Isbell and the 400 Unit. This show generates that same feeling – a feeling that this is a band that could (or at least should) be on its way to becoming a genuine American Institution.
They open up with “Go it Alone” from 2011’s Here We Rest before launching into “24 Frames” from Isbell’s solo album Something More Than Free. Following this song, it seems some of the audience are either chanting “turn up the bass” or “turn down the bass”. After Isbell takes a quick poll and determines that it may be “turn down the bass” he suggests that maybe those people should “turn down the old!” There was certainly no issue with the volume of Jimbo Hart’s bass from where we were located and everyone has a laugh at Isbell’s withering response before the band carry on with “Hope the High Road.”
Whether he’s writing about his love for his wife and daughter, his battle with substance abuse, his mental health or the state of the world we live in, Isbell has a knack for making it relatable. The narrator in many of Isbell’s songs could be me or you – (although hopefully not too many of the audience draw direct comparisons to the narrator in “Live Oak”). Be it a song from his own perspective or from that of a narrator, he will unflinchingly lay bare any perceived character flaws or mistakes made by his song’s protagonist. This helps draw you in and make you think about the song without feeling like you’re being preached at or that it’s just someone complaining about their lot in life. It’s a rare talent and one which places Isbell high in the league of the best songwriters working at the moment (if not right at the top).
The set is a mix of 400 Unit and Isbell solo tracks along with a couple of Drive-By Truckers covers – including a searing version of “Never Gonna Change” towards the end of the set which saw Isbell and Sadler Vaden having a fantastic time jamming and playing off each other during an extended solo section. This was followed by a great cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well,” the Peter Green era classic. With the audience on a high after being treated to these two tracks back to back, the band bring things back down a notch to close out with “If We Were Vampires” sending everyone into the misty night on a bittersweet note.It’s rare you’ll get the chance to see a bill packed with this much songwriting talent so if the show rolls through your town, make sure you take the chance to go and check it out.
Words by: Phil Walton
Photos by: Kirstine Walton