Once upon a time a writer who was really impressed by a concert began his review by writing: “I have seen the future of rock ’n’ roll.”
Well, it was not exactly the future of rock ’n’ roll that was on display at Robinson Center Sunday night, but a synthesis of that ever-dyin’ genre’s storied past and it’s ever-livin’ eternal now. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit are a lot like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers circa 1981 and a lot like the Rolling Stones might have been had Gram Parsons made partner in the firm and a lot like the manifested dream of a small town kid who didn’t understand why he couldn’t be both Bob Dylan and Jeff Beck.
It was fun, and you should have been there.
It was like my significant other (who actually saw the Beatles) suggested: Maybe suspiciously perfect. From the time the opener — the venerable national treasure James McMurtry hit the stage at precisely 8 p.m. (we know because of the multitude of smartphones dappling the crowd — a bad trend that didn’t go unremarked upon by the otherwise genial Isbell) to the last molting chord of second encore “If We Were Vampires,” the trains ran on time at this show. Even with techs passing the 400 Unit’s Sadler Vaden a fresh piece of guitar porn after every song (Isbell stuck to six or seven axes) everything meshed seamlessly, as the Muscles Shoals-based group (named for a now closed section of the local nervous hospital) roared and tinkled and clawed at the inchoate longings that have since time began caused our kind to seek to express ourselves through pure sound.
Isbell’s set started sedately enough with an energized version of “24 Frames,” with Vaden stroking a Rickenbacker and Isbell in what looked to be as-yet-unscuffed Nike hightops, segued into the recovery anthem “Something More Than Free” before lighting out for the territory via a lifting “Hope the High Road” before crashing into a searing, apocalyptic version of “Decoration Day,” from Isbell’s time with the Drive-By Truckers, and a stomping “White Man’s World” which redeemed what I’d previously judged to be the weakest track on Isbell’s very strong recent album The Nashville Sound.
The artful “Chaos and Clothes,” a raving “Cumberland Gap” and the part where I didn’t want to take notes anymore — though I scribbled something about keyboardist Derry deBorja wrestling his accordion through a lilting, Cajun-flavored “Codeine,” drummer Chad Gamble hammering on his set like a cartoon convict on a rock pile and bassist Jimbo Hart locking down grooves than ran to souful. Totally worth the price of admission was a mid-show three-song stretch where they ran through “Molotov” and “Stockholm” before a piercing, gut-sung version of “Cover Me Up” that cut the recorded version.
Cons? They didn’t do “Elephant,” but if they had, they would surely have murdered a few soft-hearted folks. And Amanda Shires wasn’t with them, but back in Nashville working on her own record. And it’s past my bedtime, this review is too long and I really wanted to say more about McMurtry and his fine set.