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Pic credit: Bill Donohoe


Enmore Theatre, March 25

Jason Isbell and his band come to us under false pretences, sold as one thing but delivering something else.

Not that it’s their fault (not that I’m actually complaining either) as it’s probably fairer to say they’ve been taken as something they are not by people – awards folks; those who fix labels to shelves in record stores; reviewers; listeners – who struggle with explaining what’s going on here.

Several times now Isbell has won Grammys for best Americana or American roots album and song. Many more times than is healthy, Isbell has been declared one of the saviours of modern country music.

But you know what he and the 400 Unit are? One of the best American rock bands around right now. A reaffirmation of so many things that are good – still good; hopefully forever good – about the guitar/bass/drums/keyboards-played-in-the-flesh-by-humans style of music. A reminder in songs like Something More Than Free that dignity and strength and suffering and joy can be captured in song by a collective that lifts in unison.

They can power on. From the jangle of Sadler Vaden’s Rickenbacker and thump of Chad Gamble’s drums in 24 Frames, and the scraping of a Fender and pushback of Derry deBorja’s organ in Hope The High Road, through the gradually building crunch of Decoration Day (its solo a series of scoring marks), and the walking country blues fed through a ‘70s filter in Alabama Pines, to the propulsion of Cumberland Gap and the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers swagger of Never Gonna Change.

Pic credit: Bill Donohoe

They can make you dance. Whether it’s the Louisiana shuffle of Codeine, as bass player Jimbo Hart moves us from the bayou, through west Texas, to the LA canyons; or the hold the body close/sway in time with your own breathing intimacy of Tupelo.

And they can make you feel. God yes, they can. It’s the George Jones updated with Bonnie Raitt nature of a song already a classic, Cover Me Up, (“days when we raged, we flew off the page, such damage was done/But I made it through, cause somebody knew I was meant for someone”), and the deceptively jaunty bleakness of Last Of My Kind, or the punches to the psyche of Elephant (“She said Andy, you crack me up/Seagram in a coffee cup/Sharecropper eyes and the hair almost gone”), a ballad Elton John, or Ryan Adams, would happily steal, and which will outlast us all.

Want more? They can make you laugh too. Sometimes it’s intentional: Isbell telling us about realising as they boarded their plane from Melbourne that morning, with a load of other touring musicians, how if this crashed it wouldn’t be their names prominent in the news reports but that of Fred Durst of crud rockers Limp Bizkit.

And sometimes it was unintentional, as when a drunk who had been making life hell for everyone around him all night started clapping (on the one and the three) in Last Of My Kind, right up to the moment when Isbell sang the line “nobody here can dance like me/Everybody’s clapping on the one and the three”.

Still more? We were sent home with cracked hearts and sore feet, humming ears and brains stuffed with tunes, happier than we had walked in. I’ll call that a victory for a rock’n’roll band.

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit play Byron Bay Blues & Roots Festival on Thursday March 29 and Saturday, March 31. And at the Powerstation, Auckland, March 27.

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