Peak musical magic in Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit’s first of three nights at Bass Concert Hall on Friday came in the exact middle of the set — somewhat surprisingly on a song that wasn’t an uproarious rocker but rather a gentle acoustic number.
When Isbell said he was about to play a tune that’ll appear on a live album due out in October, his fans probably expected something like the blistering “Super 8” from his 2013 breakthrough disc “Southeastern,” or maybe the Drive-By Truckers-era burner “Never Gonna Change.” Instead, he graced the crowd with “Last of My Kind,” the subtle yet deeply affecting first track on last year’s Grammy-winning album “The Nashville Sound.”
The recorded version runs four and a half minutes, but onstage Isbell and his four 400 Unit bandmates stretched it out quite a bit longer — not with pointless or meandering jams, but by exquisitely supporting and extending the song’s beautiful melody. As Isbell backed away from the microphone in the middle of the last line of the chorus, he handed off to his crew, letting Derry deBorja’s rich keyboard accents, Sadler Vaden’s tasteful slide guitar and the steady rhythms of bassist Jimbo Hart and drummer Chad Gamble swing low to carry it home.
If you noticed one key name missing from that lineup, the band’s fans certainly missed her on this night too. Isbell’s wife, fiddler and singer Amanda Shires, is in the Pacific Northwest this weekend, touring behind her own acclaimed new album “To the Sunset.”
The 400 Unit can carry the show without her — Vaden’s slide work and backing vocals help to cover for her fiddle parts and harmonies — but there’s a spark that’s clearly missing without her presence. It may or may not be a good idea to add a fill-in fiddler/singer when Shires is otherwise occupied, but it’s intriguing to think of how they’d sound with, say, longtime Alejandro Escovedo cohort Susan Voelz stepping in as a ringer of a sub.
Isbell prides himself on presenting a live show that bends from full-throttle rock ’n’ roll to more contemplative country-folk with a sonic clarity that always serves his lyrics. That balance worked well at Bass Concert Hall as he supplemented highlights from “The Nashville Sound” (playing more than half the album) with tunes from four of his five previous records plus two standouts from his Drive-By Truckers days.
Bass was less ideal of an environment for serving the varied concert-experience preferences of Isbell’s audience. His multi-night stands at ACL Live in recent years more easily accommodated the mix of older and younger fans with that venue’s standing-room floor and seated balcony options. It’s all seats at Bass, and while the crowd was polite throughout, the energy in the room felt a little flat for most of the night. It wasn’t until the finale and encore — when the aforementioned rockers “Never Gonna Change” and “Super 8” finally got their due — that the majority of the crowd rose to their feet and let loose.
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Thanking his fans at the end of the night, Isbell welcomed them back for more on Saturday and Sunday. Many of his most fervent followers no doubt did buy tickets for multiple nights, and he promised that there’d be some changes in the set for those who returned. Expect such obvious highlights as “Hope the High Road,” “24 Frames,” “Cover Me Up” and “If We Were Vampires” (which closed the show Friday on a beautifully tender note much like that grand mid-set “Last of My Kind” moment) to be repeated. But there’s plenty of room to work in standouts such as “Traveling Alone,” “Speed Trap Town” and “Outfit” that didn’t make it into the first night’s set list.
Isbell also extended a sincere thanks to opening act Marie/Lepanto, which featured Austin-based indie singer-songwriter Will Johnson on guitar. A partnership between Johnson and Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster of Arkansas (who mostly played bass on this night), the group was joined for the occasion by drummer Matt Pence, who previously teamed with Johnson in the long-running Denton band Centro-Matic. Isbell’s 2015 song “To a Band That I Loved” was written for Centro-Matic, so it’s clear that having Marie/Lepanto on the bill meant a lot to him.
Their 40-minute set seamlessly blurred the line between melodic country-folk and atmospheric noise-rock. In brief and kind comments to the crowd, Johnson acknowledged his local bona fides. “I live about 10 blocks from here,” he said. “I take the 5 bus to the concert.”
Marie/Lepanto also opens Saturday’s show. Sunday’s opening act will be Oklahoma singer-songwriter John Moreland.
1. Hope the High Road
2. 24 Frames
3. White Man’s World
4. Decoration Day
6. Something More Than Free
7. Alabama Pines
8. Last of My Kind
9. Tour of Duty
10. Dress Blues
11. Cumberland Gap
13. Hudson Commodore
15. Flying Over Water
16. Cover Me Up
17. Never Gonna Change
18. Super 8
19. If We Were Vampires