Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit played with opener, Strand of Oaks, on a rainy Saturday evening in St. Augustine. Isbell, known for his alternative country sound, piqued my interest - making this show the first real country concert I ever attended. The genre has never quite appealed to me with notable exceptions like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Dolly Parton, but Jason Isbell isn’t your typical country star. His latest offering 2017’s The Nashville Sound topped the Billboard charts in the Indie, Rock, Folk, and Country music categories this year. With this success, Isbell defies categorization and bucks Nashville’s traditionalist bent.
Don’t think he doesn’t know that he is unconventional either. Jason had this to say via Twitter about the Country Music Awards put on by country music network, CMT in June: “Sorry guys I won’t be playing any CMA fest gigs this week. The reason is because I did not want to do that.”
Between his sense of humor and having his wife, violinist Amanda Shires, by his side on stage, Isbell maintains a sense of humility, which was on display throughout the show. Most notably when he introduced the members of the 400 Unit at least a half-dozen times, showing how much credit he gives to his band and how proud he is to be working with them.
The show started promptly at 7. St. Augustine Amphitheatre does not mess around and you never want to be late to a show here, because it will start without you and end promptly before 10pm. It is one of the strictest venues I’ve ever visited and made even stricter when I was notified by security that there was a serious “No Photos” policy per the band. Thankfully, as a press member, I was able to circumvent that. Still, it stung a little. The delicious St. Augustine Distillery was on hand giving away samples of its bourbon and gin, which soothed the sting a bit.
Audience members were still trickling in from the rain when the 4-piece Strand of Oaks, hailing from Philly, took the stage. They introduced themselves and launched into “Shut In”. The lead singer, Timothy Showalter, with his long hair and shaggy beard fit the bill of alternative country singer or throwback rock n’ roll star perfectly. With gritty guitar driven songs like “Radio Kids” the band displayed their definitive Southern rock feel. The driving classic rock solos on guitar adding to the band’s retro vibe.
Strand of Oaks - "Shut In"
After playing the more melancholy “JM,” Showalter joked that he “wore his beach clothes today” for the show, which consisted of black jeans, a black button down shirt, and vest. “JM” tells the story of Showalter childhood in Indiana. Perhaps that’s why he doesn’t own proper beach wear, Indiana being landlocked and all. They followed that up with “Plymouth” and “Goshen ‘97” another second song detailing Showalter’s life in Indiana.
Before their last song of the night, Showalter told the audience, “I must say we are honored to be touring with one of the best bands out right now, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit.” The band then launched into “Everything” complete with soaring guitar riffs that inspired a bit of a jam session. Showalter paused the song to thank the crowd for listening and then launched right back into it to end their set.
The weather cleared up completely just in time for Jason and the 400 Unit to take the stage. During the intermission, the venue filled nearly to capacity. Jason took the stage and introduced the five members of the 400 Unit. A beautiful, custom light-up tattoo themed image of an anchor and a swallow hung in the background on stage and changed colors throughout the show.
With six studio albums under his belt at this point, Isbell & the 400 Unit did not have to rely on covers to get through their show. Starting promptly at 8:15, the entire set consisted of their original work. Playing songs off The Nashville Sound like “Anxiety,” “White Man’s World” and “Molotov” that have more modern themes threaded into more traditional ones about love, loss, and life. Interspersing older songs into the set-list like “Codeine” from 2011’s Here We Rest.
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit - The Nashville Sound Playlist
On “White Man’s World,” Jason yielded to Amanda Shires’s violin for an epic solo. She wore the glitteriest set off cowboy boots I’ve ever seen. I immediately wanted them. Isbell cemented his on stage relationship with his wife during “Codeine,” a song about heartbreak, by singing the line “If there’s 2 things I hate: having to cook and trying to date” in her direction. The keyboardist, Derry DeBorja, moved to the accordion for this song. Jason played acoustic guitar with Sadler Vaden on the electric. Huge cheers erupted from the crowd as the song finished.
It soon became obvious that the band operates as one big family with Isbell and Shires at the helm, as their voices mixed deliciously in each harmony. The band achieved a perfect balance between vocals and accompaniment. I could even hear the more tender notes of the violin over the drums.
Sticking to his newer material, Isbell played “Last of My Kind” which hits on familiar country music themes about a country boy losing to modernity mixed with more modern troubles like drug addiction. Though Isbell’s lyrics discuss more than just women and trucks, his sound is still unmistakably rooted in Country. Jason crooned the last bit of the song as the sun started to set and I realized that this is a show worth braving the driving Florida rain to see.
The group ran through “Something More Than Free,” “Cumberland Gap,” and “Something to Love” - a heartfelt song that evokes dancing barefoot in the grass under the stars, before Isbell announced that they would play a few songs off of 2013’s Southeastern album, including “Flying Over the Water” and the melancholy “Cover Me Up”. Jason accompanied himself solo for a while on this one while the band hung back. Isbell’s voice rising over the packed pit of the amphitheatre as the crowd sang along. He sang part of it directly to his wife, as she joined in with the violin. A song about staying sober, it was touching and raw to see it performed live. At the end of the song Jason introduced the whole band again.
They ended the show with “Anxiety” and Jason visited each of the band members at their respective stations on stage as they jammed out. He introduced the band one more time and then left the stage, but the crowd wouldn’t quit. They stayed in place cheering for an encore as bats swooped in under the tent. The Anchor and bird emblem stayed lit on stage, fueling the fans’ hope for more.
The band came back out after a few minutes for the encore with Isbell saying, “thanks for sticking around” before playing “If We Were Vampires” off of the latest album. He then introduced the band again and launched into the only cover song of the night, The Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post” that included a violin solo and a guitar solo from Vaden, living up to their potential as a jam band. If the amphitheatre weren’t so strict, I fully believe there would’ve been a lot more jam sessions throughout the set. Then they launched back into the refrain followed by another guitar solo, this time from Isbell that lasted nearly five minutes before another refrain, ending the song on a bluesy note. The show ended almost exactly at 10pm when the noise ordinance kicks in and with that it cemented Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit as a band not to be missed when they come to town.