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Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit w/ Justin Townes Earle – Sticky Fingerz, Little Rock, AR

Jason Isbell and 400 Unit

The sign above the door just read “Wed – Jason Isbell,” but I gotta admit as much as I was looking forward to hearing what Isbell’s new band could do live, I was more excited about catching a Justin Townes Earle show. I wasn’t alone, as I noticed some people that knew every song he played, but I was definitely in the minority, as a lot of the crowd took a little while to warm up to him. But they did warm up to him (I would’ve been shocked if they hadn’t.). For anyone who missed the boat so far, pay attention, cuz this kid is good – threatening to be great. The music definitely has very traditional country and blues roots to it, with song of trains, the Civil War, and John Henry, as well as Earle’s guitar being accompanied by one Cory Younts – mandolin/banjo/harmonica extraordinaire, but it’s also eclectic enough that a cover of the Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait” feels right at home on the new album, “Midnight at the Movies.”

As good as his two albums are, live is the best way to experience the songs. Everything is just more exciting, a little faster, and a lot more fun. Songs often ended with a, “Thank you so much,” and the audience was referred to as “ladies and gentlemen.” Surprisingly, it didn’t seemed forced at all, but it’s certainly in homage to singers past (If there was any question as to his musical knowledge, it’s answered when he ably covers a song like Bo Carter’s “Your Biscuits Are Big Enough for Me,” from the 1930’s.). The next song was normally prefaced with some anecdote about it’s origins – just enough to give some context. It’s the little things that kept the performance feeling like something more than just hearing a band you like play their songs well live.

Admittedly, I went to the show more interested in Earle, but damn, if he’s not a tough act to follow. Fortunately for Isbell, his new band, the 400 Unit, is extremely capable. I was especially curious to hear the songs from “Sirens of the Ditch,” an album this band did not play on, and they did not disappoint with those or ones from Isbell’s stint with the Drive-by Truckers. Unfortunately, Isbell was obviously not feeling well, and the show undoubtedly suffered some because of that. Honestly, I would have noticed it far less had the opener not been so good, and it certainly would not keep me from recommending anyone go see Isbell and his band live because they still put on a really good show. Even on an off night, you get your money’s worth. I’m sure all the fans I saw singing along would agree.

— Kyle McCraw

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