By James Biagiotti
Don’t put Jason Isbell in a box. Some call his music alternative country, some call it southern rock, and some call it Americana. No matter the genre, Isbell’s music is going to showcase his dexterity as a guitar player, his soulful singing and his incredible lyricism. Those traits are exactly what he brought to his show at the Fillmore Miami Beach on Friday night with his backing band The 400 Unit.
Isbell is a Grammy-winning guitarist, singer and songwriter from Green Hill, Alabama. He first rose to prominence as a member of the beloved southern rock stalwarts Drive-By Truckers, and is now best known for his solo work with The 400 Unit, which includes his wife Amanda Shires on violin.
South Florida is a tough market for Isbell’s tough-to-define brand of alt-country, and he drew a small crowd to the Fillmore, struggling to fill seats in the back of the venue. At times, conversation in the crowd could be heard during the performance, and a strange discord emerged in the audience between those who wanted to stand and those who wanted to sit.
After a mostly slow and timidly received opening set by Strand of Oaks, the project of Philadelphia-based musician Timothy Showalter, Isbell and The 400 Unit took the stage and began their set with “Anxiety,” a forceful cut from this year’s The Nashville Sound, which reached No. 4 on the U.S. Billboard chart earlier this month.
Not every song of the set landed as well as the first. Some of the slower songs seemed to lose the attention of the crowd, and fans could be seen trickling in and out to visit the bars in the lobby. I heard more than a few comparisons between Isbell and Ryan Adams, some positive and some negative.
The first big moment of the night came when Isbell busted out “Decoration Day,” a powerhouse track that he wrote for his first record with Drive-By Truckers. Much of the crowd came to the show in DBT T-shirts, and these fans were elated to hear the old classic from the beginning of Isbell’s career.
The most touching moment of the night came when Isbell dusted off “Cover Me Up,” the opening track from his 2013 record Southeastern, and perhaps the strongest illustration of the night of his impressive lyricism. He lovingly dedicated the song to his wife as the rest of The 400 Unit left the stage.
“This next song I wrote for my wife Amanda,” Isbell told the crowd. “It means a whole lot to me when I get to sing this song to her, with her, and for her as well.”
Easily the most moving song of the set, “Cover Me Up” began as a quiet, stripped-down ballad with only Isbell and his wife onstage. Slowly, the other members of The 400 Unit joined them one by one, adding layers to the song as it built to a climax that featured a slide guitar solo. The song then receded into a calm harmony between Isbell and his wife, concluding with the strongest reaction of the night from the crowd.
Even if the entire set wasn’t gripping, Isbell and his band knew how to end the show on an extremely strong note. The final tune of the night, a rollicking rendition of the Allman Brothers Band’s classic “Whipping Post,” got the entire crowd on its feet and brought the house down. The extended, jam-heavy interpretation of the song was reminiscent of My Morning Jacket at its best, and put Isbell’s guitar prowess on full display. (Isbell rotated between five or six axes throughout the night, from Fenders and Gibsons to a beautiful Martin acoustic.)
It seems clear after attending Jason Isbell’s show that Miami Beach is not the strongest market for his genre of music. Though Isbell may not have been able to fill up the venue (or even come close), he did bring in a loyal group of fans, some of whom drove hours to see the show. The nearly 20-song set was comprised almost entirely of his solo work, and though it had some ups and downs, the valiant performance by Isbell and The 400 Unit proved that his unique brand of southern rock is here to stay.