Live Review: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit with Gabe Lee at The Tabernacle in Atlanta, Dec. 17, 2021 (night 2 of 4)
Jason Isbell has become an outspoken proponent of voting rights, anti-racism, vaccinations, compassion, and gratitude. Sadly, these values don’t sit well with many in the country music establishment (and his vaccinations-required tour won’t melt that ice anytime soon). But he doesn’t care. Just take a gander at his Twitter feed and you’ll see. While some may categorize him as a country artist, he’s a solid fixture in the rock and Americana worlds. He first came to prominence when he joined The Drive-By Truckers at 22. He stayed for five years and three albums. This turned out to be a dark period in Isbell’s life, with alcohol and cocaine addictions in full control. After an intervention with friends in 2012, he checked into a rehabilitation treatment program. The following 2013 solo album, Southeastern, was a critical success, much of it reflecting on his sobriety and the dark past he’d escaped.
With his 400 Unit in tow, Isbell hit Atlanta’s glorious Tabernacle playing a four-night stint. Kicking off the show was “It Gets Easier,” a song documenting his substance abuse: “It gets easier but it never gets easy.” The love and support of fans was loud and evident, especially when he sang, “I sobered up, I swore off that stuff / Forever this time,” from “Cover Me Up” off Southeastern.
The artist doesn’t shy away from talking politics. “We’ve been testing you, and you failed / To see how long that you could sit with the truth but you bailed” warms up “Be Afraid,” telling listeners to, “Be afraid, be very afraid / But do it anyway, do it anyway.” Isbell is seemingly asking other artists to speak up as he quotes The Dixie Chicks, “And we don’t take requests / We won’t shut up and sing.”
After the band played “Traveling Alone,” Isbell told a story. “A few years ago, I waited outside of Bruce Springsteen‘s dressing room because I really wanted to meet him. When he finally came out, I extended my hand and said, ‘Mr. Bruce Springsteen…Jason Isbell.’ Then The Boss began singing, ‘I’ve grown tired of traveling alone / Tired of traveling alone.’ I thought, Mr. Bruce Springsteen is making fun of me…he’s making fun of my song. Then I realized he liked it.”
In recollecting the 2020 election, Isbell reminded us of his promise to record an album of covers from Georgia artists if Biden won the state. Well…Biden won Georgia and Isbell stood by his word, releasing Georgia Blue in October this year. Isbell noted the album would simply, “…make it easier for people to vote.” All proceeds will benefit Black Voters Matter, Georgia Stand-Up, and Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight. The band played two from that album: “Honeysuckle Blue” by drivin’ n’ cryin’ – with former drivin’ guitarist Sadler Vaden on vocals in a fierce rendition of the song; and “Reverse,” by Athens band Now It’s Overhead. The band’s singer, Andy LeMaster, joined Isbell onstage to sing the tune. The two have been friends for a couple decades. LeMaster is also well known as a producer, engineer, and visual artist.
“If We Were Vampires,” possibly his most well-known song from 2017’s The Nashville Sound, is a most exquisitely heartbreaking tune Isbell wrote to his wife, artist Amanda Shires. “It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever / Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone / Maybe we’ll get forty years together / But one day I’ll be gone / Or one day you’ll be gone.” “Hope the High Road” is an uplifting rocker, highlighting a positive reference to the 2016 election, “Last year was a son of a bitch / For nearly everyone we know / But I ain’t fighting with you down in the ditch / I’ll meet you up here on the road.” The band closed the show with “Decoration Day,” a Drive-By Truckers’ staple Isbell penned from the 2003 album of the same name.
Nashville’s Gabe Lee opened the show playing tunes off his latest studio album Honky Tonk Hell. Lee writes poignant stories presented through an Americana and bluegrass lens. His three-piece band most likely gained new fans as he roared through a terrific set. The title track is a fierce calling out of certain country artists. “Now Honky Tonk Hell is a hell of a place they got a big old dance room hall / Seats reserved for all the folks down in Nashville writing phonyass country songs / And if people ever get to askin,’ Mr. Gabe Lee how you end up here? / I look’ em dead in the eye and my only reply is to hit ’em with a mile long stare.”
Lee’s debut, 2019’s farmland, garnered serious critical acclaim, building a promising fan base. The single “Eveline” underscores Lee’s songwriting skills, with a heartfelt delivery. Do yourself a solid and see this guy on the road…he does not disappoint. For ticket info and how to listen/buy his music, click here.
That goes double for getting a ticket to see Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit as soon as possible. For an evening of rock, redemption, and hope, he’s your man. For more info, click here.
Categories: Live Reviews