On Jason Isbell’s Performance at the Egg

Albany, NY is a weird place for many reasons. First, there’s the Egg. It’s a strange, incredible venue for a concert, but the building itself and its construction was one of dislocation and sterilization.  Then, there’s the people. For some reason people attending concerts at the Egg think it’s acceptable behavior to yell to the artist on stage between songs. But at least they were at the Jason Isbell concert Friday night at the Egg. There were perhaps 1,000 people on hand to see Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, put on the type of performance that alternately made me profoundly glad to witness it and a bit sad that a third of the venue was empty, while 12,000 people bought tickets in a 10-minute span for Ed Sheeran recently.

Isbell got his start as one of the three guitarists and occasional vocalist in alt-country goliaths the Drive-By Truckers, before heading out on his own in 2007. His brand of alt-country is in a more serious, singer-songwriter vein than the guitar crunch and jokey aspects of DBT, but the pulsing, driving rhythm is still there and was evident from the beginning.

Opening with a pair of songs off his critically-acclaimed 2013 album Southeastern, “Stockholm” and “Flying Over Water” were considerably beefier sonically with the 400 Unit playing on them than the more subdued, minimal album takes. Southeastern was the theme of the night, as the bulk of that album’s 12 tracks were played, culminating mid-set with a powerful version of “Cover Me Up,” where Isbell’s passionate vocals and the band’s swirling musical build took the song to the next level from it’s voice-and-acoustic roots.

What makes that album and the performance of songs from it stand out is two-fold: the dexterity and proficiency of the 400 Unit and Isbell himself. Lyrically and vocally, Isbell means business. There’s no irony, no posturing, no phoning it in. His voice pours out of him with a heart-on-his-sleeve authenticity that sucks you in and keeps you hooked. Even the DBT songs of his that he played, “Decoration Day,” “Never Gonna Change” and “Outfit” are serious. The band rocked them hard and on the first two of these songs, Isbell showcased his own guitar chops, ripping two extended solos in each while the band vamped. These solos were really the only times Isbell let it rip, as the bulk of lead duties fell to Sadler Vaden, who more than held his own and provided nimble fretwork throughout the evening.

A few new songs were played to tout his new album, Something More Than Free. Current single “24 Frames” had a little more urgency live  and if “Speedtrap Town” and the title track are any indication, his new album will fit right in with his previous body of work.

Isbell closed his 2-hour set with “Elephant,” a super-depressing tale of waiting for a loved one to die of cancer, and a sort-of lighthearted take of alcoholism, the grimy Southern rocker “Super 8.”

All in all, it was a memorable performance. As someone who typically goes to concerts for free to review them, I was glad I made the decision to go to this one for fun and pay to do so. I only wish more people had made that same choice.

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