Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, IL

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit put on a show to remember at Chicago’s beautiful Auditorium Theatre.

It’s been around a year since Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit played their two-night run at the Chicago Theatre. They returned on Friday to play to a packed Auditorium Theatre for around two hours.
As people filed into the beautiful setting of the Auditorium Theatre a single spotlight illuminated two chairs and a couple of guitars and amps on the stage. At 8pm John Moreland walked out with John Calvin Abney and they sat down beneath the light and entertained the already pretty substantial audience in the venue. There is a reason that so many of the audience had made sure to arrive early. John Moreland’s star has been steadily rising over the last few years and his latest album Big Bad Love sees him in a little more of an upbeat mood although still writing lyrics that cut to the core on topics we can all relate to such as love, life, religion, and relationships. Indeed, when he appeared on Joe Pug’s podcast The Working Songwriter, he talked about how his life has been changing for the better initially presented some challenges as far as writing songs have gone. He mentioned that songwriting, for him, can be a painful process and was something that, in the past, he felt like he “had” to do. However, now he has a fuller life to occupy him he has found that thankfully writing songs is something he still wants to do (as opposed to feeling like he has to).
On Friday he played a 45 minute set including material from Big Bad Love, High On Tulsa Heat and In the Throes. John often tours solo but more recently has been either playing with a full band or as a duo with John Calvin Abney. It has to be said that the duo format works extremely well with Abney really helping add atmosphere and ambiance to the songs. Throughout the night he plays electric and acoustic guitar, harmonica and adds some bass/synth sounds as well. Not much more is needed, since with many of Moreland’s songs, its all about framing the melody, lyrics and that amazingly expressive Sprinsteen-esque voice he possesses. At the close of the set after hearing Moreland mine his soul on the stage in front of them, nobody can be in any doubt that they’ve just seen a songwriter of the highest caliber. At the merch stand during the intermission, a number of people who must have just experience Moreland for the first time were purchasing all three of the albums he had on sale.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit took to the stage around 30 minutes later, by which time, the theatre was almost full to capacity. There’s not much that hasn’t been said about Isbell and his work. He’s a songwriter who possesses that rare ability to write songs that reflect important things that are going on inside and around him in such a way that you can readily relate to and inhabit them. 

When Isbell sat down with Sam Jones on his show Off Camera he talked about his belief that some kinds of art can make you a better person, whether you’re creating it or consuming it. Good art, he says, reminds people of their similarities whilst bad art reminds them of their differences. It’s why he gets angry about some of the formulaic “corporate” music that exists since he feels it often contains no message. So if it sells ten million copies then he can’t understand why that should be the case and that makes him (and others who don’t understand) feel alienated. 

This drive to communicate and effectively lay himself bare in his songs is what makes him such a vital songwriter. This is evident on the most recent Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit record, The Nashville Sound, which sees him taking on some substantial current societal issues. Songs like “White Man’s World” and “Hope the High Road” deal with these issues eloquently without feeling like they are preaching at you. For example, in “White Man’s World” Isbell (either himself or in the form of the narrator) takes responsibility for his own behaviour in the past: I’m a white man looking in a black man’s eyes, Wishing I’d never been one of the guys, Who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke, Oh, the times ain’t forgotten”. His willingness to accept responsibility and frame this behavior in terms of his own personal experience allows you, as a listener, to more readily accept that maybe you should spend some time thinking about your own behavior.

The songs are also a window into Isbell’s mind as he works through these issues himself. Indeed, he noted during his interview with Sam Jones that the line “There can’t be more of them than us” in “Hope The High Road” is really a question not a statement and that, he himself is trying to work these things out and doesn’t have all the answers. That fearlessness in respect of genuinely putting it out there, whether or not you have the answers and regardless of what you feel the public response may be is a rare trait and, you have to feel, one of the main reasons Isbell is connecting with so many people these days.

Obviously, however, no matter how good the lyrics, a songwriter will never enjoy success if the music does not also grab people’s attention. This is somewhere where Isbell again doesn’t come up short. During the show, the audience is treated to songs spanning his solo albums, his work with the 400 Unit as well as a couple of Drive-by Truckers songs (and a CCR cover). The thing that is clear in respect of Isbell’s original music is that he has a knack for framing the content of each song against the right melody and instrumentation. Whether it’s the 400 Unit at full blast behind songs like “Cumberland Gap” or “Super 8” (from his album Southeastern) or more delicate acoustic arrangements of “Different Days” (also from Southeastern) or “If We Were Vampires,” the melodies have been written, arranged and are performed in a way that maximizes the emotional punch of the lyrics.

It’s noticeable throughout the show how much fun Isbell seems to be having when he performs these days. On the night, he brings out his daughter who is traveling with him to introduce drummer Chad Gamble. He also takes a moment at one point during the show, whilst gazing out at the huge audience in front of him, to mention that playing to a packed venue like the Auditorium Theatre was maybe the closest he’s managed to get to what he dreamed of when he was a kid playing guitar in front of the mirror in his bedroom.  

Aside from the success he’s enjoyed and the fact that he’s a happily married family man who’s been sober for some time now, another factor in how much he’s enjoying himself must be the fact that he gets to play music with some of his best friends. Watching them perform is reminiscent of watching Tom Petty with the Heartbreakers. It’s clear that they’ve been doing this a long time and can read each other extremely well on stage. Gamble and Hart on bass lock in throughout providing a solid base whilst Derry de Borja on keys/accordion and Sadler Vaden on guitar embellish and fill out the sound expertly. Some of Vaden’s slide and lead playing on the night is fantastic and you can draw comparisons (again) to the Heartbreaker’s Mike Campbell in the way that he always serves the song whilst never going too over the top. Of course, front and center is Isbell with that voice which he uses perfectly to convey what he is feeling as he performs each song. He is also a fine guitarist and, in addition to playing acoustic and electric rhythm, he and Vaden regularly trade off on solos throughout the night (he has mentioned in interviews in the past that he still considers himself a guitarist first and foremost). It also has to be said that the electric guitar tone Isbell (who is a self-confessed guitar nerd) achieves live is truly spectacular and will have left many of the guitarists in the audience desperately trying to spot what gear he was playing through.

As the final chord of “If We Were Vampires” rang out, the band took a bow and the entire audience stood in appreciation. In today’s world, where there is so much disposable music, it’s great to know that the Moreland’s and the Isbell’s of the world are around and that more and more people are beginning to truly appreciate what they do.

The tour continues over the next couple of months. Check the dates to see if it’s coming through your town (or anywhere nearby). If it is, make sure that you grab a ticket because this is a show you definitely do not want miss.

Words By: Phil Walton
Photos By: Kirstine Walton

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About Phil Walton 84 Articles
Phil grew up in the UK and loved listening to and playing music from a young age. He moved from the UK to Chicago in 2011, falling in love with the city and its music scene. He enjoys nothing better than spending time with musicians, whether it be watching them perform, talking to them for the website or reading their autobiographies.

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