Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit at Massey Hall

The King of Americana returns to The Ryman North

Touring in support of his ninth studio album, Weathervanes, Jason Isbell and his band, The 400 Unit made a stop at Massey Hall. Jason Isbell was one of many artists ADDICTED was eager to cover back when summer shows started being announced in early 2020. A long six years had passed since Isbell’s last Toronto show, also at Massey, leaving no surprise to this one selling out. As an introduction to Jason Isbell, the artist was born near Muscle Shoals, Alabama not far from the Tennessee state line. After studying English and creative writing at the University of Memphis, Isbell rose to awareness after he was asked to join Georgia-based southern and country rockers, Drive-By Truckers. Adding his songs to the list of the Truckers’ most loved, Isbell played guitar and sang with the band until 2007. Forced out due to his drug and alcohol use, he eventually entered recovery in 2012 and remains a leading voice among sober artists. Paired with The Nashville Sound in 2017 and Reunions in 2020, Weathervanes, completes a trio of Isbell’s strongest-to-date releases, his cover album of Georgia-based artists notwithstanding. The latter, Georgia Blue, was recorded in 2021 by Isbell after announcing on Twitter that he would do so if Georgia elected Democrats to the Senate. Last April, Isbell and his wife, (renowned Texan fiddle player, singer, and songwriter) Amanda Shires, along with the 400 Unit appeared in an HBO documentary, Running with Our Eyes Closed. The doc details the recording of the album Reunions (the movie title comes from a song off the album), touching upon the pandemic and Isbell’s and Shire’s relationship as well. Onto the reason for the tour, Weathervanes, surprisingly absolutely no one in the know, was praised by both critics and fans of Isbell.

The thirteen songs on the album find Jason Isbell returning to the things he does best – combining storytelling with songwriting and slathering it all with rawness and top-shelf musicianship. As usual, the stories aren’t always pretty yet show hope mixed in with the bleakness, something Isbell has turned into a bit of a self-pisstake, poking at himself for writing sad, party songs. From topics such as opioid addiction to loving someone with mental health and substances issues, school shootings to losing loved ones, this is one modern country-leaning artist who knows the world doesn’t have time for another Daisy Duke shorts sippin’ whiskey on the tailgate ten-gallon hat-pop song blandly churned out by Music Row mercenaries. He also managed to write and record a listenable pandemic song with Middle of the Morning. At his show in Toronto at Massey Hall, Isbell leaned heavily on Weathervanes, playing eleven of its songs. And there were zero complaints in response to those oft-dreaded seven words, “Here’s a song from our new album.”

Starting the night was Kentucky native, S.G. Goodman and her band.

After opening with When We Were Close, Save The World, and King of Oklahoma, Isbell took a brief pause to get the sold-out crowd to sing Happy Birthday To You to keyboardist Derry Deborja. The crowd showed extra love when Isbell sang the first verse of Last of My Kind, one of his many songs that could easily be plagiarized to pitch a Netflix feature. Telling the audience that this year marked the tenth anniversary of his groundbreaking solo album, Southeastern, Jason Isbell ripped a sweet version of Stockholm. Spreading the spotlight, he introduced (yet again) co-guitarist Sadler Vaden to take a song. Playing and singing Honeysuckle Rose (one of the covers on Georgia Blue), Vaden showcased a track from his previous life as a member of Drivin’ and Cryin’. Cast Iron Skillet was next, a song that uses southern country tropes apart from pickups, cowboy boots, and things you can’t do in a small town.

Isbell made a point of introducing his virtuosic band more than once. In addition to those mentioned, the double drumming of full-time drummer, Chad Gamble and sometimes drummer, sometimes guitarist Will Johnson meshed well with fill-in bassist, Dominic Davis (while long-standing member Jimbo Hart takes some healing time off the road). Amanda Shires was not on this tour. Before the set ended, there was no way any one of the thousands of screamers was letting Isbell leave without hearing Cover Me Up. Featuring the line “I sobered up and I swore off that stuff, forever this time”‘ a cheer rose from the crowd either pointing to all us sober Isbell fans or just a celebration of the man’s fight to be here with us on the night. After a quick break, the band returned with a triple threat of 24 Frames, If We Were Vampires, a song that always brings tears to my eyes, and a house-bringing-down version of This Ain’t It. Full on some of the finest rock songwriting around, heartfelt, honest heartbreakers, and fierce guitar duels, a happy buzzing crowd left Massey Hall, some, unlike myself carrying sweet t-shirts showing the band name mocked up as the Massey Hall sign. If your medium doesn’t fit as you’d like, drop me a line.

This leg of Jason Isbell and the 4oo Unit’s Weathervanes tour rolls through the south for two more shows before picking back up in the fall. After shows again throughout the south, they end with eight shows at the Ryman Auditorium in Isbell’s home of Nashville in October. All you need to know can be found here.

Aron Harris
Aron Harris is ADDICTED Magazine's music editor as well as a contributor. As a graphic designer, writer and photographer, you can find his work all over ADDICTED. He also geeks out over watches, pizza, bass guitars and the Grateful Dead.
Aron Harris

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