The High Road


The Modell Lyric was a veritable bastion of alternative Americana when Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit rolled into town Feb. 6. Playing before a packed crowd, Isbell and his opener, James McMurtry, delivered a show that was equal parts reflective and rock’n’roll.

Folk rocker McMurtry, the son of famous Western novelist Larry, kicked the night off with a blend of mumbled humor and evocative political hits. Highlights: “No More Buffalo” and “Copper Canteen,” a song featured in the New York Times ’25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music is Going’ roundup. (“I guess that makes me a participant in the ‘fake news,'” McMurtry cracked.)

Isbell’s set, underscored by a decidedly rock’n’roll light show, began with “Hope the High Road” (from his latest, “The Nashville Sound”), followed by megahit “24 Frames” (never a disappointment). From there, the show weaved seamlessly among Isbell and the Unit’s mixed-tempo repertoire, relying heavily on the latest album (from which 9/10 songs were played).

Isbell prides himself on a primarily Muscle Shoals, Alabama-based band, but Charm City fans were happy to see keys/accordion player and Baltimore native Derry deBorja on stage–he earned a standing ovation, and his parents were audience, too. Nothing like a little Maryland pride.

Also worth noting: Isbell’s wife (on fiddle) publicly acknowledging the anniversary of his sobriety (another standing ovation), and his two recent Grammy wins. He was sheepish about the former and silent on the latter, underscoring the sense that he just wanted to focus on the music.

And focus he did. The show was powerful and poignant, exemplified by its encore: a blistering Drive by Truckers Southern Rock-sonic boom in “Never Gonna Change” and the sad, soulful “If We Were Vampires” to close out the night.

Not bad for the “youngest old man in country.”

Additional reporting by Scott Uslin.

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  1. Large signs in the lobby stated Isbell’s request to refrain from taking photo or video during the show, but of course there were plenty of those to whom the rules never apply. Close to 4,000 people filled the venue (Friday’s show has a few seats available) and sang along worshipfully as Isbell plowed through the majority of his latest album, “The Nashville Sound,” which, along with the track “If We Were Vampires,” scored a couple of Grammy Awards last month. Backstage at that ceremony, a humble Isbell talked about Gregg Allman, whose posthumous release his work defeated, and the influence of the Allman Brothers Band. Even though Isbell’s music leans toward Americana and alt-country, there are shades of those storied Southern rockers in the buzzing slide guitar Isbell unleashed on “Hope the High Road” and the open-hearted declaration, “Something More Than Free. ” He generously introduced the band throughout the duration of the concert, and the contributions of Derry Deborja (keyboards, accordion), Chad Gamble (drums), Jimbo Hart (bass), Sadler Varden (guitar) and Amanda Shires (vocals, fiddle, wife of Isbell) cannot be overstated. Amanda Shires, fiddler, singer and Isbell’s wife, is a key part of the 400 Unit.


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