Summer is in full swing and what better way to celebrate than a picnic in the Garden with Jason Isbell. The singer/songwriter (and former Drive-By Trucker) and his band, the 400 Unit, bring their country/folk/rock blend of Americana to the Red Butte Garden Amphitheatre on Saturday, July 8, 2023.
Isbell, a four-time Grammy winner, pens lyrical slice-of-life vignettes about the trials of everyday life. His often hardscrabble characters come alive in his music as they face complex struggles like addiction, depression, inner demons, and loss of innocence. Like Springsteen, who writes about his working-class roots in suburban New Jersey, Isbell draws from his rural North Alabama to tell his stories with a country flair. He mixes sappy, southern sentimentality with raw, unadorned, pragmatism. The result is hard-edged, yet congenial.
Playing within the broad-category of Americana or roots music, Isbell doesn’t cross any particular rubicon, instead he straddles the fence with folksy ballads as he moves effortlessly between rock and country. On his Grammy-winning hit single “24 Frames” Isbell delivers a sound reminiscent of the Georgia indie-rock of the ‘90s with lyrics that tackle the fleeting nature of life and how it can change in an instant. He sings “You thought God was an architect, now you know, He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.” On “Cover Me Up,” now a country standard, Isbell penned a beautifully romantic ballad without losing sight of the complicated nature of relationships.
Isbell and the 400 Unit are touring in support of their just-released album Weathervane. Like the title suggests, the music on this well-crafted new record moves like a cool breeze between ballads and country rock. The weather vane feels like a barometer for life’s shifting winds. The thematic arc in the song “Cast Iron Skillet” suggests that past beliefs (like not washing a cast iron skillet), may be outdated thinking. The song weaves a story of a family torn apart by inherent bigotry. When a white girl finds love in a boy with smiling eyes and dark skin, she is disowned and banished. Isbell sings “she found love, and it was simple as a weather vane, but her own family tried to kill it. Don’t wash the cast iron skillet.”
The 400 Unit’s tight performance provides Isbell the musical canvas for his expressive lyricism. “Middle of the Morning” is a great, soulful track with a Van Morrison vibe. The uptempo country-funk tune, “This Ain’t It,” leaves room for Isbell and Sadler Vaden to trade guitar licks in an old-school southern jam. “Miles” closes out the remarkable record by taking us on a 7-minute musical journey. It begins with a Neil Young/Tom Petty/Mike Campbell-styled strut that leads us toward a trippy detour down Abbey Road.
Fun fact: Isbell’s band the 400 Unit was named after a psychiatric ward in his hometown.
Opening the show is Deer Tick. No, not the blood-sucking, Lyme Disease carrying parasite that infests the New England woods every spring and summer. It’s Deer Tick, the very cool alt-folk-indie-rock band from Providence, Rhode Island (my old stompin’ ground.) The band is touring in support of their latest album Emotional Contracts. The first track, “If I Try To Leave,” is a toe-tapping rocker with a retro-styled riff (circa ‘72) and a modern verve. “Forgiving Ties” is also reminiscent of a jukebox favorite from the ‘80s that you’ve just recently rediscovered. It’s a fine record start-to-finish and I’m looking forward to hearing a nice mix of old and new.
Fans wanting more than an opening set can catch Deer Tick again on Friday, November 3, 2023 at The Commonwealth Room where they’ll be headlining.
Who: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit w/ Deer Tick
Where: Red Butte Garden Amphitheatre
When: Saturday, July 8, 2023
Tickets and info: www.redbuttegarden.org