TVD Live Shots: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit with S.G. Goodman at Wolf Trap, 8/2

PHOTOS: RACHEL LANGE | Jason Isbell’s summer tour with The 400 Unit began with some brash urgency on a splendid night at Wolf Trap in Vienna, VA. With a slightly retooled band and a terrific new album, Weathervanes, he was there to present a lot of it—nine of its 13 tracks, all told. 

And they’re a pretty strong set of songs, full of quirky characters in specific locations, playing out their fates in songs that don’t worry about changing directions midway. He’s been shuffling in the new songs with old favorites and scrambling the order nightly. It’s tempting to think he started with “Save the World”—with its heartbreaking message of a world where parents are frightened for their children because of the exploding gun violence—for a DC adjacent audience in hopes of nudging some action to the issue.

But the show stayed on the same intense level with another arresting tune from Weathervanes, “King of Oklahoma,” about a blue collar character with a crumbling marriage, numbed by possibly addicting prescribed painkillers. Both songs had equal sting from guitar interplay between Isbell, who got his first jobs in rock due to his instrumental prowess, working off another top talent, Sadler Vaden, of another beloved band of Southern rockers Drivin’ N Cryin.’

He’d go ahead and paint other vivid lyrical pictures in songs like “Strawberry Woman” and “White Beretta” but in between wove in poignant songs of his own lonely upbringing, “Dreamsicle” and his anthem to his home state, “Alabama Pines.”

Noting this year’s 10-year anniversary of his solo breakthrough Southeastern, which he hinted he would commemorate properly later this year, Isbell offered its wistful song of homesickness “Stockholm” and interrupted the planned set for a beautiful acoustic guitar and piano reading of the arresting “Elephant,” the song about a friend’s cancer that was so raw and real one wondered why anyone else hadn’t accomplished such a feat on the subject.

Brisk, efficient and gracious, Isbell never gave a hint that he had to work too hard to present his top-notch show; it seemed to come naturally, the product of practice and hard work. He was generous, too, to his band the 400 Unit, which had a different look this summer due to bearded bassist Jimbo Hart taking time off from touring “to take care of my mental health and resolve some old-school traumas,” he said in a statement.

More striking was the sight of a second drum set: that of touring member Will Johnson. While Chad Gamble is still handling most of the drum duty, Johnson, the Texas multi-instrumentalist who played in the band Centro-Matic (which Isbell previously hailed in “To a Band That I Loved”) steps away from the second drumset to also play guitar and sing backup as needed.

While the double drums visually may conjure images of the Allman Brothers, for one, it is the guitar interplay between Isbell and Vaden that reprised the kind of light, melodic “Blue Sky” interplay of Dickie Betts and Duane Allman—especially on things like “This Ain’t It,” which closed the main set as the big moon was rising. Isbell also gave Vaden the spotlight to bring back that big riff from the enduring Southern stomper from Drivin’ N Cryin,’ “Honeysuckle Blue” (How is it possible this track is 34 years old?).

I had a bit of an issue with the lighting, which seemed more pointed at the audience as it framed the band, than toward the entertainers. This meant sometimes the players weren’t very visible at all to the naked eye; the people doing American Sign Language interpretations at the side of the stage (a new thing at Wolf Trap this season) were at times more reliably lit. Even viewers close in had to spy a look at the video screen to get a clearer view of exactly what was happening on stage. Such lighting design may seem cool to a band, but it doesn’t do all it can to make the players visible to a vast outdoor crowd.

Isbell has been good in bringing along newer Southern voices on his tour to open the shows; the past couple of stops at Wolf Trap, it’s been Waxahatchie. This time was just as good, the western Kentucky singer/songwriter S.G. Goodman, who warbles her plaintive lyrics in a high register, from behind glasses and a hank of hair over one eye.

It didn’t seem as though she’d speak at all to the audience amid her moody songs but eventually had a charming patter about being in a venue with a population bigger than the town she grew up in. She also noted that Tyler Childers’ has covered her knockout song “Space and Time,” but admitted she wrote it more with Dolly Parton in mind. With songs suitable for Patsy Cline and a cool, otherworldly approach, she’s someone to watch.


Save the World
King of Oklahoma
Death Wish
Strawberry Woman
Last of My Kind
White Beretta
Middle of the Morning
Alabama Pines
Honeysuckle Blue
Cast Iron Skillet
Cover Me Up

24 Frames
If We Were Vampires
This Ain’t It

Work Until I Die
Old Time Feeling
If You Were Someone I Loved
You Were Someone I Loved
Space and Time
The Way I Talk
Waymore’s Blues

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