Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit at the Salt Shed in Chicago, IL

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit make a welcome return to Chicago’s Salt Shed for the first of a two-night engagement.

When the Salt Shed, Chicago’s newest music venue, opened in 2022, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit were amongst the first performers to make a stop at the outdoor stage. Since then, the indoor portion of the venue has been completed and has welcomed some big names such as Iggy Pop, Death Cab for Cutie, and Run the Jewels. This time around, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit sold out two nights on the indoor stage, and there’s a good chance they could have sold out more had they been scheduled. Maybe next time, eh? Well, we can hope……

These days, Jason Isbell is an extremely popular act wherever in the country (and dare we say the world) he lands, and Chicago is no exception. Wherever we have seen him perform in the past, whether it be the Chicago Symphony Center, The Auditorium Theatre, or Northerly Island, there is always a loyal contingent of Chicago fans battling to ensure they grab tickets. The enjoyment the fans get from watching him perform seems to be reciprocated judging by the huge smile that was plastered across his face as he took to the stage. 

As Jason walked onto the stage, you couldn’t help but notice he looked, as mentioned above, just genuinely happy to be onstage to play music for this audience. Obviously, events in Jason’s personal life are well-publicized at the moment and he posted on social media recently about how much gratitude he has when he gets onstage to play for his fans. It’s an audience that has grown exponentially over the last few years and one which he has cultivated via the fundamentals: great songwriting, consistently putting out new music, and (barring the world’s little Covid break) relentless touring. He was on top form throughout the entire night, not just musically but with his interactions with the crowd. When one guy in the audience shouted out a request, Jason quipped, “The man who’s shouting a request is not going to get it. That’s an old Chicago proverb. It’s a lot like, ‘You’ll get what you get and you’ll f**king like it.'” All said and taken in good jest, of course. There were also numerous reminiscences of past Chicago performances peppered throughout the show, dating back to the days when he was playing for considerably smaller audiences in Schuba’s Tavern.

Last year marked the 10th anniversary of Southeastern and the band is touring off the back of the release of their latest album, Weathervanes. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the setlist was heavy with songs from both albums. Indeed, the night kicked off with three songs from the new release – “Save The World,” “King of Oklahoma,” and “Strawberry Woman.” What a way to start the show! 

These days, the band tours as a six-piece, made up of Sadler Vaden (guitar), Anna Butterss (bass), Chad Gamble (drums), Derry deBorja (keys and accordion), and Will Johnson (percussion and guitar). Butterss on bass locks in perfectly with Chad and she has quietly and unassumingly gone about the business of replacing the Jimbo-shaped hole in the band. You can tell from the interactions between her and the rest of the band members during the set that she has been accepted into the fold. It also has to be said that, landing a talent like Will Johnson has to be seen as something of a coup by Isbell. A prodigiously talented songwriter and musician in his own right, he does a great job of adding texture and weight to the band’s live sound whether it’s playing an extra guitar, providing additional percussion, vocals, or, of course, as the banger of the gong (but only once!). Speaking of texture, it probably goes unnoticed sometimes just how important Derry de Borja is in creating the 400 Unit’s sound. Whether it’s on keys or accordion he is always adding, often very subtly, an extra layer to the songs. It’s also great fun to watch him throughout the set, constantly moving around his station, immersed in the music.      

One of the most exciting things about the 400 Unit’s live shows is, of course, getting to watch Isbell and Sadler Vaden play off each other throughout the night. Vaden has a real talent for finding the counterpoint to the vocal in Isbell’s songs, playing melodic lines that have become key parts of many 400 Unit songs. It’s a rare skill to be able to do this well and one which has drawn more than one comparison to (in our opinion) the best player in recent history to do that, Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers. When the mood strikes, however, Vaden can also let loose with the best of them and it’s some of these moments, with him and Isbell ping-ponging lines between each other, that really got pulses racing on Thursday.  

It’s clear just how much both Isbell and Vaden truly love playing guitar and how much they are constantly chasing that perfect sound. Numerous wonderful guitars were displayed throughout the set, but a great guitar alone doesn’t do anything unless you just want to hang it on a wall and look at it. These guitars are being played by two players who have obviously spent countless hours in their bedrooms and on the road honing their craft and then countless hours more gathering the right equipment to get the perfect tone for every song. It has been time well spent, and we would suggest that you will not go to a live show these days where you hear better guitar tone than a JI400U show. In fact, the sound of the band as a whole was spectacular on the night, with everything sitting perfectly in the mix, so a nod to the band’s live sound engineer is also definitely warranted. 

With all the talk of the band, however, what cannot be forgotten is what underpins all of it, and that is Isbell’s uncanny ability to communicate and connect with his audience through his writing. This is highlighted perfectly by the stripped-back songs in the set. “Elephant” has always packed a huge emotional punch and hearing it performed live by just Isbell and deBorja really puts the lyrics front and center, drawing you in and making you live in it for four minutes. “Cover Me Up” was also performed by Jason alone on stage with an acoustic guitar and the choice to play it that way, particularly in light of the recent news about his relationship, made it hit just that bit harder.  

If you visit Loud Hailer regularly, you will know that Jason is a particular favorite of the site. While some fans get frustrated when an artist they follow for a long time connects with a larger audience, that is certainly not how we feel about Jason’s success. It was truly special to turn away from the stage for a few moments on Thursday evening and just watch the faces in the sold-out Salt Shed crowd as they took in the show. When an artist is able to produce music that connects with people the way that Jason’s does, we should all want as many people as possible to be exposed to it. Long may it continue.

Tour dates are scheduled throughout the rest of the year so you have plenty of opportunities to catch them in 2024. However, you have to be quick to snag tickets these days, so don’t delay. Buy yours today!

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About Kirstine Walton 383 Articles
Kirstine moved from the UK to Chicago in 2011, and has fallen in love with the city and its music scene. She enjoys combining her two biggest passions – music and photography. If there is a band with a guitar playing, chances are she’ll be there…camera in hand. Kirstine went to her first live concert at 7 years old, and hasn’t looked back since!