Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit (Photo by Alysse Gafkjen)
Jason Isbell referred to himself, his band, and opening act Waxahatchee as ambassadors for the state of Alabama when they appeared at Wolf Trap on Tuesday evening.
Jason described himself and The 400 unit as “from Muscles Shoals mostly,” with the exception of keyboardist Jerry DeBorja, who is from Baltimore. He was glad, he said, that they were spreading music, not Covid, and he thanked the audience for their cooperation with the protocols for the show. Isbell has been outspoken in insisting that those attending his shows be vaccinated or have negative Covid test results, and has canceled appearances where venues would not agree to enforce that. Jason has become sort of a spokesman for musicians who believe in trying to make their shows as safe as possible.
Waxahatchee, aka Katie Crutchfield, opened for Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit at Wolf Trap on Sept. 14. Jason is often mentioned as “one of the finest songwriter of his generation,” while Waxahatchee’s name is frequently cited in discussions of the best young, up-and-coming songwriters. And that’s completely true; they are amazing songwriters, steeped in the literary and poetic traditions of the deep South. But it’s important to give these exceptional performers their due for that aspect of their craft. Tuesday’s show was absolutely a rock show, and both acts played it loud and hard, hot and greasy. Both sang their asses off, and Jason also showed off his exceptional guitar skills, playing many of the leads during his set, and cutting loose with some fiery solos.
Jason Isbell performs at Wolf Trap on Sept. 14, 2021. (Photo courtesy Wolf Trap)
Early in the pandemic — May 2020 to be exact — Jason released his latest record, Reunions. Obviously, because of the circumstances, he wasn’t able to immediately tour behind the record, and this current swing is his first chance to play these songs for audiences. The first half of his set was drawn largely made up of this new material: set opener “Overseas,” “What’ve I Done To Help,” “Dreamsicle,” “It Gets Easier,” “Letting You Go,” and “Only Children,” mixed with fan favorite “24 Frames,” “Hope the High Road,” “Super 8,” and “Alabama Pines.” With “Letting You Go,” he explained is about his daughter, who recently turned 6, and who is accompanying him on the tour. The day before the show, he shared, they went for a boat ride in DC; Jason also gave a shout-out to his wife, fellow singer-songwriter and sometime 400 Unit violinist Amanda Shires, who was home recovering following a health issue. After “Alabama Pines,” Jason told the audience, “We’re done with all the Alabama-specific content. The rest of these songs could’ve happened anywhere.”
Stream “Letting You Go” by Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit on YouTube:
In the second half of his set, Jason delved into older material from his songbook. “Last of My Kind” is a tale of not fitting into the urban world, while “If We Were Vampires” is a meditation on love and loss. He threw in another new song, the ominous “Be Afraid,” alongside “Something More Than Free,” “Speed Trap Town,” “Stockholm,” and “Flying Over Water.”
In addition to his position on Covid, Jason has often taken public stances supporting liberal causes. Last November, as the results of the presidential election rolled in and we waited to learn which way Georgia would go, Jason promised that, if the state went blue, he would make a benefit album of his favorite Georgia songs. At the show, he announced that the record, Georgia Blue, is done, and it’ll be coming out next month. Because he didn’t have to write the songs for it, he was able to “just go in[to the studio] and play music with my friends. We had some guests. It was a fucking blast.” He then showcased a track, the REM deep cut “Driver 8,” which is now out on streaming platforms.
Operating under the moniker of Waxahatchee, singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield has released several albums to wide acclaim over the past decade. Beginning as a solo project, her earliest recordings were lo-fi, and are often characterized as “bedroom recordings.” In the ensuing years, she has expanded to recording and performing with a full band, often exploring the alternative rock space. Last year’s St. Cloud used Americana textures, and a recent digital re-release featured covers of Lucinda Williams’ “Fruits of My Labor,” Dolly Parton’s “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia.” The Boss’s influence was evident on one number in her set that used synths, sounding like an evolution of his mid-80s sound. At this year’s upcoming Americana Music Association awards, Katie is nominated for Emerging Artist of the Year.
Like Isbell, Crutchfield wasn’t able to tour immediately on this most recent album, making this the first opportunity for those in attendance to hear these songs live. She opened with the lead-off track from the record, “Oxbow,” and most of her set was new songs, including the title cut, “War,” “Witches,” “Lilacs,” “The Eye,” “Hell,” “Ruby Falls,” and “Can’t Do Much.” She also threw in a couple of old favorites: “Chapel of Pines,” “Long Wave,” and “Recite Remorse.”
Waxahatchee’s set was excellent; at 45 minutes, it was just enough to give you a taste of her work, and to hopefully whet your appetite for more. If you enjoyed her performance, or if you missed it and want to see what everyone’s talking about, she’ll be headlining a sold-out show at the Lincoln Theatre on Oct. 8.
Rock and roll can be full of substantial lyrics without sacrificing any of its power and vitality, as Jason and Katie proved last night. The show delivered pulse-pounding excitement and plenty of sonic dynamite, all organized around a core of finely crafted, thoughtful words. This is what music can and should be.