TVD Live: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit with Waxahatchee at Wolf Trap, 9/14

Americana kingpin Jason Isbell is always a gracious frontman and performer. But he had to stop his show with his band The 400 Unit a couple of times Tuesday at Wolf Trap in Virginia to take in what he was seeing: a nearly full outdoor amphitheater packed with fans who had been waiting as long as he had to hear songs from his most recent album Reunions, released in May 2020. Sixteen months later he was performing it as he intended before an appreciative crowd under a rising half moon. “Here we all are!” he marveled. “No screens!”

A lot of the new album’s songs were built for playing live and the first couple selections from his set, “Overseas” and “What’ve I Done to Help,” snarled with expressive guitar solos from he and guitarist Sadler Vaden. Both favor a kind of wild, electric slide tonality echoing the best of ’70s inventiveness from Duane Allman to David Lindley. Isbell has attracted wide attention with his songwriting, though, with compositions that are full of the kind of detail and turn of phrase that can stun midway through.

With his wife Amanda Shires back in Nashville recovering from an unnamed malady, it’s tempting to say the band played harder and tilted more toward rock than they might have had she been there with her countrified fiddle and backing vocals. Vaden added Pete Townshend-style windmill slashes to his guitar more than once, which might have triggered drummer Chad Gamble to rumble like Keith Moon, while bassist Jimbo Hart conjured up a bass solo or two in the tradition of John Entwistle. But then again, Isbell can turn on a dime and produce quieter acoustic meditations that are all the more astonishing when they quiet a big outdoor audience that had been rocking along minutes earlier.

To keep things interesting for himself, his band, and maybe audience members who catch more than one show, Isbell switches the setlist around each night. As a result, those who peek at what he’d played in previous shows may be disappointed when he didn’t play them here. But then again, pulling things out of the hat means playing some unexpected selections, from “Alabama Pines” in the first half of the show to “Speed Trap Town” toward the end.

The show came on the same day that he had announced the band would release an album of Georgia-related cover songs on October 15—as he promised he would last November, if Biden won the election (proceeds from the album will go to voting rights organizations in Georgia). So they played one of them, a cover of R.E.M.’s “Driver 8” that was welcome, but sounded quite different played on two acoustic guitars, accordion from keyboardist Derry DeBorja, and Isbell’s richer, more melodic voice.

Isbell is aware that there is tremendous affection for his 2013 solo breakthrough Southeastern, so he closed the show with a group of songs from it (a rotating selection at each stop). This evening, the closing trio were “Stockholm,” the yearning “Flying Over Water,” and the terrific “Cover Me Up.” (The shambling and reliably rocking “Super 8” from Southeastern had come earlier.)

The encore began with just Isbell and Vaden on acoustic guitars for his “Tour of Duty.” And bringing the band on stage for a final song, Isbell had been doing Stones covers, but instead picked something from his Drive-By Truckers past, “Never Gonna Change” which revved and revved again before winding up.

Choosing Waxahatchee as opener was part of Isbell’s intent to showcase Alabama acts. It was a one-night slot on Isbell’s tour for her, but she rose to the occasion with a full band giving her songs extra power while retaining their vulnerability. In fact the voice of Katie Crutchfield, who is the embodiment of the project named after a creek in Alabama, has the right tone and timbre to be a country singer. Sometimes she covers Dolly Parton in concert.

Tuesday, her backing of the band was a Detroit group called Bonny Doon who got to perform one of their own songs amid the 12-song set, three-fourths of which were dominated by songs from the latest Waxahatchee album, Saint Cloud, released in March 2020 in the opening days of the pandemic. She, like the headliner, had been waiting a long time to perform her new songs live and her enthusiasm was obvious.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit Setlist:
What’ve I Done to Help
24 Frames
Hope the High Road
Alabama Pines
It Gets Easier
Super 8
Letting You Go
Only Children
Last of My Kind
Driver 8
If We Were Vampires
Be Afraid
Something More Than Free
Speed Trap Town
Flying Over Water
Cover Me Up

Tour of Duty
Never Gonna Change

Waxahatchee Setlist:
Chapel of Pines
Can’t Do Much
Recite Remorse
The Eye
Long Wave
Ruby Falls
St. Cloud

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