It’s been just over four years since Jason Isbell last performed in Savannah. The Alabama singer/songwriter, who’d been unceremoniously kicked out of the Drive-By Truckers (more on that later), was at that time in the early stages of a solo career. He’d formed a new band, the 400 Unit, and they played at a now-defunct Broughton Street restaurant called Loco’s.
What a difference four years can make. Isbell returned Sunday night to play a prestigious Savannah Music Festival gig, at the Ships of the Sea Museum’s North Garden, the 400 Unit in tow. He’s riding high on Southeastern, his fourth solo release and a collection named by Rolling Stone as one of the best country albums of 2013.
Well, it’s southern but it’s not exactly country. Isbell’s measured nasal twang and trebly guitar bring the late, great Whiskeytown to mind, or the Jayhawks, creative maelstroms with a nice sense of the unpredictable. Or the Truckers, when they’re on. He also happens to be a dynamic electric guitarist, heavy on the slide and reverb, son. It’s lyrical rock ‘n’ roll music with a rural edge to it.
Where Isbell shines, and where he’s going to leave the Truckers in the dust, is in his songwriting. He studied creative writing at the University of Memphis, and his stuff shows the careful consideration of a man for whom words carry a lot of weight. He’s like Steve Earle without the big chip on his shoulder.
Sometimes the songs’ musical constructions have a bittersweet, minor-key Lynyrd Skynyrd vibe (think “Tuesday’s Gone,” not “Free Bird”); the melodies aren’t always sublime, but when they are, just try to get ‘em out of your head. He writes about rocky roads and hard decisions.
So what about the concert, you ask? Well, the North Garden, it turns out, is a fine venue for listening to a virtuoso rock ‘n’ roll band. There were the obvious chestnuts from his Truckers days (“Decoration Day,” “Outfit”) and a strong selection of Southeastern tunes including the brilliant “Elephant” (it’s about watching someone you love die of cancer) and “Different Days” (about being an alcoholic and a jerk).
“Different Days” is one of the Southeastern songs that address – in a creative-writing sort of way – Isbell’s alcoholism (it’s why the Truckers booted him, and in all honesty why his solo career hasn’t quite caught fire yet). He got sober last year, after an intervention from his bud Ryan Adams (the driving force in Whiskeytown, ironically) and family members including Isbell’s wife, singer/songwriter Amanda Shires.
Isbell is now personable and funny onstage. When someone in Sunday’s audience called out “Where’s Amanda?,” he replied that she wasn’t in Savannah with him. “She comes when she can,” Isbell said, “but she’s not required by law.”
He then proceeded to explain that Amanda was at their home in Nashville, watching The Tudors on Netflix. “I keep trying to explain to her that that guy looks nothing like Henry VIII,” he laughed.
With Isbell out front, the 400 Unit is a strong five-piece band that’s eerily reminiscent of the young, hungry Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – tough and muscular, but dynamic and malleable as each song requires.
As I listened to them pour passion into great Isbell songs like “Stockholm,” “Tour of Duty,” “Live Oak” and “Alabama Pines,” I kept thinking: All this guy needs is a hit. Then we’ll all be saying “Man, I remember seeing him at Loco’s back in the day.”