Nashville songwriter Jason Isbell performs sold out at the Boston Wang Center


Jay N. Miller

  • JASON ISBELL with Ida Mae, at the Wang Theater of the Boch center, in Boston, on Saturday September 18th

Was there any doubt that Jason Isbell and the Unit 400 concert on Saturday night at Boston’s Wang Theater at the Boch Center was going to be another unforgettable night of rock ‘n’ roll emotion? Isbell has earned his reputation as the best songwriter in American roots music today, and he’s also always been the kind of performer who dedicates himself every night. It goes almost without mentioning that his longtime cohorts, the 400 Unit, are a spirited and versatile quartet of rock lifers who also go full blast on stage.

Saturday’s hour-and-50-minute show featured 21 songs, eight from Isbell’s 2020 album “Reunions” and five from 2013’s “Southeastern” album, widely regarded as the one that released it. of cult status. It also contained some of his most compelling and autobiographical tunes, about his own triumph over some personal demons and the search for the lasting love he had always sought, and the sold-out crowd of 3,500 cheered him on. all along.

Jason Isbell played songs from the 2013s "Meetings" album during his concert in Boston on Saturday, September 18, 2021.

An Isbell concert is an emotionally draining experience, in the best possible way. There are frequent indelible moments that you cannot imagine seeing with another musician. The one who jumped on Saturday was late in the show when Isbell sang “Cover Me Up,” his signature song about leaving his rock star excesses behind and finding the love of his life (wife and violinist Amanda Shires) . The song is romantic but visceral, charming yet rough, idealistic but delivered in terms anyone can appreciate. There’s a verse about an earlier episode of alcohol or drug abuse that threatened the relationship, and then Isbell sings, “But I sobered up, and I swore that stuff, forever this time …”

At the phrase “I sobered up,” a third of the audience erupted into cheers and applause. Sure, plenty of fans sang throughout the song anyway, but when was one expected to hear a loud southern rock show brought out by fans screaming to get sober?

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Prose is one thing and poetry is another, but songwriting is another. Lyrics and music interact in an ineffable way that makes them more than the sum of their parts. Isbell excels at creating relatable vignettes that seek out or affirm simple truths. There is a vague sense of therapy – ours and his – like in “Cover Me Up”, where your chair psychologist can easily conclude that he hasn’t found love before because he wasn’t. not worthy and did not even love himself very much. So, in that regard, it becomes not only a catchy and sexy love song, but a personal triumph that we can all enjoy and perhaps aspire to.

Take a look at some other jaw-dropping songs from Saturday’s set. “Elephant,” from this 2013 album, is about a man who has a friend who is dying of cancer and how he tries to keep her spirits up even though he despairs of his inability to stop the inevitable. Who among us has not lost loved ones to this disease or similar people and has not felt something like this? Or take the more recent romantic ballad, “If We Were Vampires”, where the singer professes his complete and utter worship, while fearing that one lover will outlive the other. This might not be what most couples worry about, but the premise as a setting for intense love really hits home and high profile fans might wonder if she brings up Byron, Shelley, or Keats. among classical poets.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit performed in Boston on Saturday, September 18, 2021.

There are undoubtedly cynics who wonder how a rocker includes songs about cancer and lovers who care who goes first, and not just disgust their entire audience. But part of Isbell’s great appeal is that it makes it look natural and even cool to embrace your emotions. There are generations of American men who laugh at the women they “love”, and rock songs have served as imaginary (or sometimes real) substitutes for many of us. Isbell plays this role as well, being a more verbal and musically talented replacement, but does so in a way that is not only engaging, but also makes it feel like it’s okay to address your emotions, to explore them and go all out when you meet that special someone.

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Isbell’s show started with a dynamic charge through “Overseas” from the last album, then a quick acoustic run through “What did I do to help? »His hymn to get involved in the world around you. The beating drums of “24 Frames” recalled that 2013 album, then one of the most rock numbers of the evening was “It Gets Easier (But It Never Gets Easy)”. Some songs from the album “Reunions” appeared as singing musings, which worked wonderfully as “Dreamsicle” and “Only Children” deal with memories of childhood or adolescence.

Another song from the last CD, “Letting You Go”, is about Isbell’s daughter, now 6, and he noted that she was on this tour and had a fabulous day in Boston. and stock up on goodies in Chinatown. Isbell will be releasing another album next month, “Georgia Blue,” with all the covers of tracks related to that state and Saturday’s pick was REM’s “Driver 8”, delivered as a fast-paced freight train, highlighting 400 Unit drummer Chad Gamble and bassist Jimbo Hart.

Jason Isbell and Unit 400

“Last of My Kind”, with Isbell on acoustic guitar and Sadler Vaden on slide, was somewhere between folk-rock and country-rock. The respectful silence that greeted “If We Were Vampires” showed just how impactful it had been, but Isbell and his company then unleashed an industrial-strength fuzz sound for a blitz through “Be Afraid” and a jubilant ” Hope the High Road “. A scaled-down acoustic version of “Alabama Pines” took the music to another realm, reminding us of vintage Simon & Garfunkel. This poignant version of “Elephant” came with just Isbell’s guitar and Derry DeBorja’s piano.

Then it was the return to the classic 2013 album for rock interpretations of “Stockholm” and a particularly powerful “Flying Over Water”. When this song reached the stage of Isbell’s guitar solo, the melodic power of the song had primed the pump so well that the crowd roared at its first notes. After this captivating solo version of “Cover Me Up”, Isbell resurrected the crisp rock of “Super Eight” to close the regular set. For the first encore, Isbell and Vaden took an acoustic jaunt through “Tour of Duty,” in which a returning soldier plans his reintegration into normal life. Then the evening ended with a crushing rumble through Fleetwood Mac (the first F-Mac blues) “Oh Well”, where Vaden and Isbell took turns creating blazing guitar lines in a fiery duel.

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Ida Mae and her quartet opened with a 45-minute ensemble of her soothing swamp folk, with her trill vocals (and lovely vocals) against the subtle beats of her band mates.

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