Review: In Clearwater, the 400 Unit flexes its muscles as a sold-out Ruth Eckerd Hall witnesses Jason Isbell entering his prime

Shoutout to the sound guy for the flawless mix.

It’s often stated that in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes. But there needs to be something else added to that famous idiom, because another absolute certainty is that, if one goes to a Jason Isbell concert, they’re sure to see one hell of a great show. Each and every time. The Alabama-born singer-songwriter/guitarist extraordinaire has painstakingly created his own niche and own genre since the release of his 2007 solo debut, and his chops have increased dramatically with each subsequent release.

Promoting his most current album, 2017’s marvelous The Nashville Sound, Isbell and his magnificent band, The 400 Unit, absolutely awed and impressed a sold-out (and rowdy) Ruth Eckerd Hall audience on Tuesday night and left it with a show each and every person in attendance won’t soon forget.

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit with Red Cortez at Crowbar (2009)

The 39-year old, no-nonsense and forthright Isbell has a penchant for writing emotionally engaging, often personal songs and delivering them with the utmost sincerity. No other Isbell performance I’ve previously seen quite matched the mastery and the genuineness that he and his band displayed during Tuesday’s stupendous performance.

Taking the stage donning a casual black button-up shirt, jeans and sneakers, the tall, lanky headliner got things off to a rousing start with a tremendous version of “Go It Alone,” one of the many standout tracks from his 2011 release Here We Rest. From the start, it was clear that this was not going to be an ordinary night of music.

Boasting a flawless mix and sounding particularly tight and well-oiled, The 400 Unit chugged along behind its leader and added color, texture, ambiance and grit to every fantastic number it unleashed for the duration of a nearly two-hour performance that seemed to fly by.

Lead guitarist Sadler Vaden’s uncanny ability to switch from atmospheric, easygoing playing to nasty, crunchy riffs is a thing of wonder itself. Isbell has surrounded himself with fine musicians who add their own individual ingredients to the hodgepodge genre Isbell has adopted and built upon. Straddling the line between countless styles, Isbell’s heart is as enveloped in rock and roll as it is in traditional country music, and the combination he produces is really unlike any other player’s in the game right now. Just ask his fans — the devoted, loyal, diehards who stood for most of Tuesday’s show, sang along and felt each and every word the fine singer belted.

Jason Isbell sheds skin, shreds guitar for two hour set at Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall — 10.19.16

Delving into his deep and rich catalog, Isbell seemed to please everyone in the house. While he relied heavily on his current album The Nashville Sound, he certainly didn’t forget about earlier material and presented it with an equal amount of passion and aplomb. Most notable, particularly breathtaking and powerful was a reading of “Decoration Day” — the title track of a 2003 release from Drive-By Truckers, the band he got his start with — which featured some tasty slide guitar work from Isbell.

A rousing rendition of 2015’s “Something More Than Free” earned a hearty ovation as the normally stoical, stern singer let down his guard down to laugh.

“This is gonna be a fun night,” he chuckled. Boy, was he ever right.

As is the norm when Isbell takes a local stage, the lyric from “Traveling Alone” that references our very own Ybor City always draws a frenzied response. The pockets of boisterous, emphatic fans around the theater who chose to stand and sing along all night made their approval known.

Keyboardist and backup singer Derry deBorja added plenty of flavor and spirit to the evening’s selections but his accordion work during “Codeine” was especially complementary and fun.

Remarkably showing off his unmatched poise and comfort in switching from a gut-wrenching, emotive number like “Tupelo” to an all-out, greasy rocker like “Super 8” is one of Jason Isbell’s many gifts and talents. His vocals are growing richer and more full as he matures, his wordplay and lyricism are the best they’ve ever been, and his command and ability to keep an audience rapt and in his pocket are well-honed skills that come with years on the road. It’s obvious that Jason Isbell has certainly improved with each and every album and concert tour. Isbell has undoubtedly reached a high point in an already-lengthy career that’s still blossoming.

Making the personal life decision to get sober, as he candidly admits to in 2013’s poignant and moving “Cover Me Up,” Isbell is more focused on his presentation and seems to have the clarity and the stamina to deliver fantastic shows.

Humble and unpretentious, Jason Isbell took a moment to honor and recognize the man who opened Tuesday night’s show, British folk/rock stalwart Richard Thompson. Touting him for the influence he had on his own songwriting and guitar playing, Isbell declared his reverence for the highly-respected luminary who treated the audience to a 45-minute set that was greeted with several standing ovations along the way. Dressed in all black himself and sporting a beret, the renowned artist stuck to an all-acoustic set that more than exemplified his exquisite guitar style and his rich, deep vocal talents. Celebrating his 50th year in music, dating back to his 1967 debut with British folk icons Fairport Convention, Thompson treated the crowd to a fantastic set that covered many stages of his career and drew plenty of favorable responses when doing so. Throwing in selections like “Valerie,” the admittedly cynical “Crocodile Tears” and the Sandy Denny-penned ballad from his Fairport Convention days, “Who Known Where the Time Goes?” Thompson’s set more than made this a truly exceptional way to spend a Tuesday night.

When the year comes to an end and it’s time to compile “best of “lists, this unforgettable night of music will certainly rank highly on that exclusive list; but it will surely be topped by the next visit the mighty Jason Isbell makes to our hometown.

About The Author

Gabe Echazabal

I was born on a Sunday Morning.I soon received The Gift of loving music.Through music, I Found A Reason for living.It was when I discovered rock and roll that I Was Beginning To See The Light.Because through music, I'm Set Free.It's always helped me keep my Head Held High.When I started dancing to that fine, fine...
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