Toronto’s Massey Hall played host on Tuesday night to Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. Isbell is the type of artist who belongs on Massey’s fabled stage. When Nashville comes to this city, often it’s to the outskirts. Mainstream Country seems to have a foothold in the areas surrounding the big city. The genre known as Americana, on the other hand, seems to have niche appeal; it is firmly rooted in Country, and pulls from Folk and Southern Rock enough to make it cool to all who take the time to listen. Isbell has done a lot of living and deserves your ear.
Amanda Shires opened the show. She and her band played a set that filled the room with a big country music sound – remarkable coming from four little instruments. The combination of drums, bass, guitar and fiddle lifted Shires’ vocals up to a place that shone down upon the room. In thanking Isbell for having her out on the road, she joked that it was because she is awesome, not because she is his wife. That was not conjecture, it was fact, as Isbell confirmed later in the evening.
When the lights dimmed for Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, the stage set-up was spare. The only adornment came in the form of a colourful light-up display in the shape of a bird and anchor tattoo. The six piece band, which included Shires, started the evening off with Anxiety, from the new album, The Nashville Sound. This was followed up by a slightly sped up, rockier version of 24 Frames. Isbell and the 400 Unit made their way through a series of songs that demonstrated the heart and soul in Isbell’s writing. He is a storyteller and his mission, it seems, is to tell America’s story through song, one character at a time. The songs are inherently intimate and political by virtue of the tales they tell.
The arrangement of Codeine featured a jam that allowed the accordion to shine. In part, it’s the accordion and fiddle that give Isbell’s music the earthy sound that tethers it to the land. As a unit, the band played together deftly – it all made sense and sounded beautiful. Especially poignant, was Last of My Kind, a song that evoked the loneliness of leaving a small rural town for the city and the rampant isolation of our day and age. The band also showed that it can rock, like when they played Speed Trap Town or Super 8, an ode to the rocker lifestyle with a refrain of “I don’t want to die in a Super 8 Motel.” (Let’s face it, no one does.)
The two song encore gave the crowd a last taste of that Americana cocktail. It was one part heartbreak, with If We Were Vampires and one part rock n’ roll with a rollicking rendition of the Drive-By Truckers’ Decoration Day. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit gave fans a night of music and stories to hold onto; we can all use a little wisdom in the shape of a song.