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.