Live Review: Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit, Aimee Mann, Philadelphia, PA, Feb. 23, 2024

The only thing more welcome than hearing the once-shambolic live sound of Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit grown and honed to fine, aged-whiskey perfection was the surprise (to me) opening set from Aimee Mann, an artist Isbell called “the finest songwriter.”

Once a messily musical student of the churning combine of soul, country, bluegrass, rockabilly and gospel that made the Band divinely rickety (and dangerous), Isbell and his longtime collaborators, the 400 Unit, have taken up the mantle of well-worn, smooth interplay that was Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers’ mien. Whether it was the Southern dirtball rock-out of “Flying Over Water,” the slow, rangy “Elephant” or the fuzztone clutter of “Hope The High Road,” Isbell and band patiently took their time with their conversational instrumental prowess. Team Isbell filled many of its (usually) long songs with the rococo nuance of boyish harmony vocals, rippling accordions and dexterous jazzy drumming—with two full kits, yet. The heightened passion of the night’s closers (“If We Were Vampires” and “This Ain’t It”) could only have occurred between close bandmates whose every breath, pluck and pounding is pure intuition.

Though he’s well-regarded as a storyteller, my belief is that Isbell is, in reality, a romantic essayist with a poet’s flirtation, a feel for filmic narrative, many bones to pick and the humor to back it all up. The Alabama-rooted Isbell waltzed through the three-song salvo of “King Of Oklahoma,” “Strawberry Woman” and “Last Of My Kind” with more quickened, overlapped thoughts and tiny character studies than Robert Altman’s Nashville, several toasty twin-guitar breaks, a ragged, glorious solo worthy of Neil Young’s “Cortez The Killer” and Isbell’s shredded, plaintive vocals square in the center of that whirlwind. If you were looking for a 21st-century take on Hemingway short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” Isbell was ready with “White Beretta” and his rumination on abortion and its religious implications (anyone who can turn the phrase “Raised in church, rinsed in blood” into a rousing chorus has their cassock on straight).

Need a primer on Southern hospitality and hostility? Listen no further than “Cast Iron Skillet.” What it means to battle alcoholism and win (Isbell’s been sober since 2012) and live hard through the heartbreak and struggles of love? Throw a dart—those victories and the pains that brought him here waft like cigarette smoke through most of the Isbell catalog. Plus, they took the family feel of the 400 Unit to its nth degree when guitarist Sadler Vaden took the mic, powerfully, to cover “Honeysuckle Blue” by his former band Drivin N Cryin, while Isbell pulled from his own back pages of Drive-By Truckers classics for a yowling, slide-guitar listen into “Decoration Day.”

A perfect set with dramatic peaks and valleys—that’s what Isbell and his 400 Unit do best. And did, to towering effect, on Friday night at the Met.

Then again, Isbell and Co. had their work cut out for them after the spectacular melodrama of Aimee Mann. Thirty years into a solo career of svelte, sophisticated songcraft as a composer and lyricist, Mann has turned even more Bacharach-ian through the arching complex pop of songs such as “Lies Of Summer” and the tautly repetitive jangle of “You Never Loved Me.” Backed by a harmony-ready quartet and the occasional aid of collaborator Jonathan Coulton (“Melancholy Melodies,” “Patient Zero,” “Rollercoasters”), Mann proved she’s still creating distantly emotional material that’s as menacing funny as it is wistfully, smartly romantic—be it new material (“Suicide Is Murder,” initially penned for a Broadway musical version of Girl, Interrupted) or “Save Me” (her arch classic written for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia).

—A.D. Amorosi; photos by Chris Sikich

Aimee Mann