by Julian Spivey
I was just thrilled to be seeing a concert on Saturday, Aug. 14 after having it postponed more than a year due to Covid-19 and then once again about a week before it’s new date for reasons that were never truly announced. Then less than a week before the new, new date the musician Jason Isbell announced he wouldn’t perform at venues that didn’t require vaccination cards or a negative Covid test within 72 hours of the event and I felt because I lived in the far from progressive Arkansas that the venue might try to prove a dumb point and the show might get canceled.
Luckily the venue accepted the vaccination policy, and Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit went on to put on an incredible show on Saturday night at the First Security Amphitheater in Little Rock, Ark. It was the seventh time I’ve seen the band live (the fourth as the main attraction) and it was one of the best I’ve seen as the band performed a lot of tracks from its 2020 release Reunions and past fan-favorites.
The venue was also packed for the two postponements and uproar that Isbell’s vaccine policy (which is being adopted by many other artists and venues) in the days leading up to the event.
President of River Concerts (which runs shows at the venue) Dan Fife told KATV Channel 7 that only 10 percent of ticket buyers requested a refund.
Isbell & the 400 began their set with “Overseas,” my favorite track off Reunions, which includes one of the best guitar solos of Isbell’s career to date.
Other terrific tracks from that album the band would play over the span of the evening were “It Gets Easier,” no doubt inspired by Isbell’s now decade-long sobriety, “Letting You Go,” dedicated to his five-year old daughter Mercy who is traveling on tour with him, “Be Afraid,” “What’ve I Don’t Help,” “Dreamsicle” and “Only Children.”
Of Isbell’s terrific output over the past decade, I’d have to say Reunions was my least favorite, but these songs just go to show how great of a singer-songwriter he is because they’re still top notch.
Isbell does a terrific job at spreading great songs from his entire career throughout his set. There was “Last of My Kind” and “If We Were Vampires” from 2017’s The Nashville Sound, “Something More than Free” and “24 Frames” from 2015’s Something More Than Free and “Super 8,” “Elephant,” “Stockholm” and “Cover Me Up” from 2013’s Southeastern. These are all essentially “greatest hits” for the songwriter from the Muscle Shoals, Ala. region.
Perhaps my favorite performance from Isbell & the 400 Unit’s set was “Outfit” from his days with the Southern rock group Drive-By Truckers that I hadn’t seen the band play in concert the last few times I’ve attended their shows. It had been replaced a lot in 400 Unit sets by “Never Gonna Change,” also from his days with the Truckers. Isbell dedicated the song to his father, who has also been tagging along on tour with his son.
One of the funnier moments of the show was when Isbell played the classic “Oh Well” from the Peter Green days of Fleetwood Mac for his daughter Mercy, early on in his set before her bedtime, as its one of her favorite songs he plays, despite not being his own. He’s a multiple-time Grammy Award winning artists and his own daughter would rather he play covers. It was a fantastic performance by the entire band that includes Sadler Vaden on guitar, Jimbo Hart on bass, Chad Gamble on drums and Derry DeBorja on keys and occasionally accordion and anything else necessary.
After a terrific 18-song set, Isbell would return to the stage for an encore, at first just with Vaden as the two performed an excellent acoustic version of “Tour of Duty,” from the band’s 2011 album Here We Rest. The two were then joined by the remainder of the band for a rip-roaring performance of “Never Gonna Change” that truly brought the house down.
Sometimes postponements can bring about great opportunities and that’s what happened when this show was moved from 2020 to 2021 as legendary singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams was the opener on Saturday but wasn’t going to be in 2020. It’s truly a miracle Williams was able to perform as she’s less than a year removed from having a stroke in November of last year. She was helped to a seated stool on the stage for her performance and is still unable to play guitar, but she sounds terrific. She thrilled the audience, the part of the audience that arrived early enough to see her set (come on people, enjoy the openers, especially when they’re this notable), with performances like “Bad News Blues,” “Pineola,” “Drunken Angel” and “You Can’t Rule Me.” Toward the end of her set she stood up, while leaning on her seat, to pay tribute to recently departed ZZ Top bassist Dusty Hill with an excellent cover of that band’s 1973 song “Jesus Just Left Chicago,” and remained on her feet to finish with “Righteously,” “Honey Bee” and “Get Right with God.”
As I previously wrote on this website, I am 100 percent thrilled with Isbell’s decision to enforce a vaccination policy for his show and I’m happy to see other artists and venues and concert promoters doing the same. I love live music and the only way for live music to continue now is to ensure the safety of the concert goers and those artists performing, their crews behind the scenes and those who work at the venues. I wondered if having to show vaccination cards at the entrance would make the process of entering the venue take longer – it didn’t add any time whatsoever to being able to get into the venue on Saturday night. So, I have to say any venues or people complaining that they can’t do it are just plain wrong or inept.