The High Road: Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit Live

Greek Theatre; Berkeley, CA, USA; August 30, 2018

by Jason Warburg



I know you're tired
And you ain't sleeping well
And likely mad as hell
But wherever you are
I hope the high road leads you home again

- Jason Isbell, “Hope The High Road”

Hanging onto your idealism these days can feel like hard work. Every day there’s some piece of news that makes you shake your head, that feels almost designed to make you feel a little more cynical or a little more hopeless. And then along comes a guy like Jason Isbell—an Alabama-born singer-songwriter with a hell-raising past and barely half a dozen years of sobriety, singing artful, incisive songs about hope and connection and love and trying your damnedest to do the right thing even when it’s hard, songs born from a fierce conviction that we can all do better. Maybe this is what courage looks like in 2018.

But first let’s set the scene. Evening shows at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre can feel like a giant family picnic, especially with a crowd as mellow and congenial as this one. In advance of Isbell’s headlining set, cult favorite singer-songwriter Aimee Mann opened up with 45 minutes of witty banter and sharp-eyed observational songs, her expressive alto sounding at times like a college-professor version of Chrissie Hynde. Though her rather acerbic folk-pop sometimes felt like a bit of a mismatch with Isbell’s earnest, country-leaning Americana, she was warmly received, and she and Isbell showered compliments and respect on one another during their sets.

With the last flares of daylight fading into the inky sky, Isbell and his band The 400 Unit—Jimbo Hart on bass, Chad Gamble on drums, Derry DeBorja on keys, and Sadler Vaden on guitar, joined this night by Isbell’s wife and sometime bandmate Amanda Shires on fiddle and gorgeous harmony vocals—stride onstage full of purpose. The tone for the rest of the evening is set from the first note of ringing opener “Hope The High Road,” an anthem to the grounded, rugged optimism that seems to animate Isbell’s work today. “Last year was a son of a bitch / For nearly everyone we know,” Isbell sings as the song surges and soars, “But I ain't fighting with you down in the ditch / I'll meet you up here on the road.”

Deftly mixing songs from 2017’s Grammy-winning The Nashville Sound with older tunes, Isbell keeps his foot in the gas as the band powers through “24 Frames” from 2013’s Something More Than Free before nearly overheating with a blistering take on one the finest songs he wrote back in his drinking days with the Drive-By Truckers, “Never Gonna Change.” This angry bellow at all forms of authority, a near-caricature of Southern stubbornness, is lit up by extended dueling solos from Isbell and Vaden, both ace guitar-slingers who play with equal measures of finesse and fire.

Deep-track ballad “Different Days” softens the mood momentarily before Isbell returns to the heart of the matter with a ferocious, take-no-prisoners rendition of “White Man’s World.” Near the end, so full of disgust at the injustices his world of privilege has wrought that he’s nearly spitting his words, Isbell declares “I still have faith, but I don’t know why.” Buried deep in a moment like this, how can we even dare to hope that things might get better? Voice low but full of steel, he answers his own question: “Maybe it’s the fire in my little girl’s eyes.” And then repeats the only line that repeats in the entire song: “Maybe it’s the fire in my little girl’s eyes.”

The darkness lifts a bit once more with the philosophical “Something More Than Free,” followed by the bright, affirming “Molotov,” before Isbell and Shires team up for a stunning version of “Elephant,” a song about trying to comfort a friend dying of cancer that wades deep into the impossibility of that proposition. From there, Isbell and band alternate a trio of superb songs from Nashville Sound with a trio of equally powerful numbers from his 2013 breakthrough Southeastern. A re-arranged, steady-building “Last Of My Kind” leads into a fiery “Cumberland Gap” (see video), and the loping, amiable “Tupelo,” before we turn back time for the ringing “Stockholm,” the raucous, grinning “Super 8,” and perhaps the highlight of an evening full of them: “Cover Me Up.”

The very talented Shires has a solo career of her own and is only free to play selected shows on her husband’s tour, which makes the nights when she does show up that much more special. After all, half the songs Isbell has written during these past six years of sobriety are for or about her, and none moreso than “Cover Me Up,” one of the most passionate, heartfelt, transformative love songs of this young century. Imagine a man who nearly tore himself apart with a decade of alcohol and cocaine abuse before his lover staged an intervention, whereupon he went into recovery, quit drinking and drugging, started writing the best songs of his life, married his lover, wrote even more amazing songs, fathered a little girl with his wife, and then wrote the album that won him a Grammy. Then imagine the two lovers standing on stage in front of 2,000 assembled friends, she harmonizing with voice and fiddle as he strums his acoustic and sings:

So girl, leave your boots by the bed
We ain't leaving this room
Till someone needs medical help
Or the magnolias bloom
It's cold in this house and I ain't going out to chop wood
So cover me up and know you're enough
To use me for good

Put your faith to the test when I tore off your dress
In Richmond on high
But I sobered up and I swore off that stuff
Forever this time
And the old lovers sing
“I thought it’d be me who helped him get home”
But home was a dream
One I'd never seen till you came along

As their two voices melt into one, it’s a moment of intimacy so pure you almost have to look away—but you can’t. This is the very essence of love: hard-won, luminous, transcendent.

If the next few songs can’t quite measure up to that moment, I can’t fault them for it. The ballad “If It Takes a Lifetime” and the vintage DBT rocker “Decoration Day” offer a solid finish to the main set, and encore nuggets “Flagship” (acoustic) and “Codeine” (electric) get the crowd swaying and singing some more. Beforehand I’d felt sure perpetual show-closer “If We Were Vampires” would be the night’s easy winner in the love song department, but even as every couple in the crowd joins hands, I understand that on this night, second place will have to do.

After the final song, with the entire band gathered center stage and every light in the rig above shining down on their little road family, Isbell and Shires turn upstage. Whereupon their little girl Mercy Rose comes bursting out from side-stage and into her daddy’s arms, hair and dress flying, grinning from ear to ear as noise-canceling headphones protect them from the hearty, wet-eyed roar of the crowd.

Why does a man like Jason Isbell, who’s already been to hell and back, still believe in hope, still believe it’s important to go out almost every night and sing and try in some small way to move people's hearts and minds? The reason why is about three-foot-two, with a head full of sandy curls and a fire in her eyes.



Hope The High Road
24 Frames
Never Gonna Change
Different Days
White Man’s World
Something More Than Free
Last Of My Kind
Cumberland Gap
Super 8
Cover Me Up
If It Takes a Lifetime
Decoration Day
If We Were Vampires

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