Live Review: Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Cain’s Ballroom, Tulsa, Oklahoma – 5th May 2024

This year marks the centenary of Cain’s Ballroom, the historic Tulsa, Oklahoma venue.  Such is the kudos associated with playing in this glorious space, it attracts artists who, even though they could at least half-fill the nearby 19,000-capacity BOK Center or easily sell-out the 2,800-seater Tulsa Theater, prefer to play the smaller venue that began life in 1924 as a garage and later, with the likes of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, became the epicentre of 1930s and 40s Western Swing.  The walls of the adjoining Mac’s BBQ restaurant are adorned with posters from just a tiny fraction of the acts that have appeared in the hallowed hall.  Famously, in January 1978, Cain’s hosted the penultimate show of The Sex Pistols’ first and only U.S. tour.  The memories and scars of that evening, including a section of dry wall with a hole punched through it by a frustrated Sid Vicious, are preserved and celebrated alongside many other reminiscences.

Like many others, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit chose to play Cain’s in preference to the other options, albeit for two consecutive, sell-out nights accommodating 3,600 very fortunate fans.

On this first of those nights, an almost two-hour, twenty-one song set featured all but four tracks from their album ‘Weathervanes’, with Isbell and band leaving not a soul in the capacity crowd with any doubt as to why that record was totally deserving of the 2024 Best Americana Album Grammy and why this band’s poster should be added to Mac’s wall.

As the band took to the revered stage to the sound of Glenn Campbell’s ‘Wichita Lineman’, there was a sense that something special was about to happen.  And it did.  The first few songs of the set, including ‘When We Were Close’, ‘Save The World’ and ‘King of Oklahoma’, provided teasing hints of what was to come. Isbell joked that there’s no opening act this evening because the local artist they invited was out of town, this being Jack White, who has a home in Tulsa.  Frankly, an opening act would have been superfluous.

The last time Isbell and the 400 Unit visited Tulsa’s musical gem was almost three years ago.  Five songs and three-fifths of his band survive from that show;  Isbell’s recently ex-wife Amanda Shires and her fiddle are understandably absent, Jimbo Hart has been replaced by the super-cool Australian bassist Anna Butterss, and the band are complemented by Isbell’s friend Will Johnson, described in his own right as ‘one of the most prolific artists in American indie rock’, who adds rhythm guitar, backing vocals, second drums and percussion. I was at that last Cain’s show in 2021 and, great as it was, I don’t remember the band having hit their stride to anything like the same level as they evidently now have.

It’s when Isbell invites guitarist Sadler Vaden, formerly of Georgia’s Drivin N Cryin, to take lead vocal on the DNC song ‘Honeysuckle Blue’ that things really take off, putting the guitar virtuosity of both Isbell and Vaden on full display.  The sounds of their interplay and duelling swirled and flew around the room like summer swallows.  At this point I should give credit to the front of house sound engineer.  I have no idea who that person was, but this was one of the best sounds I have heard at Cain’s for quite a while.

It was twenty years ago at SXSW 2004 that I first encountered Isbell.  On the basis that it would be easier to get in, I chose to go to Coopers Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que to see Drive-By Truckers rather than going elsewhere to see the Polyphonic Spree.  DBT played on the tiny stage to an equally tiny audience.   A month earlier Isbell had turned twenty-five and was midway through his tenure with the Truckers.  The album ‘Decoration Day’ had been released nine months previously and, although I can’t remember anything of the setlist, I’m sure they were still in promotion mode and churning out songs from that record.  What I can remember is not being overly impressed with the band and concurring with one review that described them as “…a load of sub-Lynyrd Skynyrd bombastic country rock of a standard lower than hundreds of other bands around this week.” Twenty years later, this is definitely not an assessment that could be applied to Isbell and co. as they launch into the title track from that 2003 album, the painful confessional of a violent feud between families that is ‘Decoration Day’, its false ending ushering in even more of their luscious guitar duetting.

After the brief cooling down offered by the rites of passage tale of home-town disillusionment that is ‘Speed Trap Town’, Isbell introduced what he tells us is a favourite part of the proceedings.  This is the point at which Will Johnson takes to his hitherto inactive drum kit and joins drummer Chad Gamble to add dual drums to the dual guitars.  The tight synchronization of the drummers adds a wall of percussion, bringing a pumping power and thumping drive to ‘Miles’, a homage to Neil Young if ever there was one and much more than just a simple nod to Isbell’s influences.  The anthemic second half of the song rises to a crescendo with the repeated chant, “In the name of survival, we get used to this, in the name of forgiveness we get bored.”  I doubt there was a bored person in the house.

The 400 Unit exits, leaving Isbell alone with his acoustic guitar from which soon emanates the unmistakable intro of ‘Cover Me Up’, the opening track of his groundbreaking solo album ‘Southeastern’.  As the song progresses, one-by-one the band members return to the stage to add their layers and bring the song and set to a glorious conclusion.  As the twelve-year sober singer delivers the lines, “I sobered up, I swore off that stuff, forever this time”, as one, the crowd rises in an emotionally sincere cheer that feels like it offers in equal measure support, empathy and appreciation of what that sobriety has brought them.

In a respectful acknowledgement of another influence and to Tulsa being the home of the Bob Dylan Center and archive, the encore includes a brilliant version of Dylan’s ‘When I Paint My Masterpiece’ which is, well, a masterpiece.

As heavy storms blew in the following evening and the potential of tornados threatened to disrupt their second night show, I was concerned that the Monday night audience might not get to enjoy an equally thrilling experience.  But I must confess, had it not been for other commitments and the scarcity of tickets to that show, I would have risked being sucked up and blown away by a twister just to be there again.

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