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Music Review: Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit at the Satellite Ballroom, Charlottesville, Va., 10/9/07

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The Drive-By Truckers are surely missing the talent of Jason Isbell, but from the look of his performance in Charlottesville last week, he’s not lacking anything at all.

His songs, both new and old, teem with the fresh energy of a man who's no longer fenced in. His touring outfit, the 400 Unit, lay down deep-fried accompaniment that is the perfect enhancer for Jason's fiery twang rock recipe.

The boys from Muscle Shoals started this evening at the Satellite Ballroom with “Brand New Kind of Actress,” also the opener from Isbell’s debut solo album Sirens In The Ditch. They wasted no time getting into Truckers material though, following with the hard-edged “Decoration Day” to the delight of the crowd. The band was solid, and the pure power that Jason and co-guitarist Browan Lollar unleashed during the solo was a full-on assault. If there were any doubts about the 400 Unit’s capabilities, they were quickly erased.

To display his virtuosity, Jason moved to the piano for “Chicago Promenade,” a slower-tempo ballad from the new album. As he sang and tickled the keys, his raspy, smoker’s voice resembled a southern version of Tom Waits. “Are ya’ll having a good time?,” he asked as he reclaimed his axe and took a swig of  beer. The audience cheered with a resounding yes, and they were rewarded with more hammering drums, deep bass grooves, southern-style vocal harmonies, and blistering guitar interplay.

Jason Isbell and the members of the 400 Unit have an evident chemistry and camaraderie, which surely lends a great deal to the vibe on stage. They seem to be having fun while also remaining committed to their musicianship, something that is decidedly more difficult than it looks.

Between songs, while switching from electric to acoustic, Jason commented on Charlottesville calling it a “beautiful town with beautiful people” and repeatedly thanked everyone for coming out and listening. While most musicians give these obligatory nods to the fans, Jason’s came across as sincerely grateful. He then announced that he and the band would play their one bluegrass song, “The Magician.” While it didn’t have the same “pow” factor as the electric songs, it further exposed the members' multi-talented abilities.

After a brief smoke break, the reinvigorated band emerged and blasted into "Never Gonna Change," a song written for the Drive-By Truckers 2004 release The Dirty South. This was perhaps the highlight of the evening, with the back-end more lively than it had been all night.

In addition to Jason's self-penned material, the band also threw in a couple cover songs – the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” Eric Clapton’s “Please Be With Me,” and ending with Thin Lizzy’s “Jailbreak” – all of which were remarkably impressive and faithful to the originals.


Brand New Kind of Actress
Decoration Day
Chicago Promenade

Down In A Hole
Psycho Killer
Goddamn Lonely Love
The Magician
Please Be With Me
Never Gonna Change
In A Razor Town

The Assassin

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