Nearly five months after Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit‘s planned two-night run at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium was thwarted by the frontman’s bout with COVID, the band finally returned to Asheville, NC on Saturday. The format had altered slightly, as a two-night stand at the downtown theater was shifted to a one-nighter at Rabbit Rabbit, downtown Asheville’s new outdoor venue. What remained was Jason Isbell’s storied songbook, his air-tight backing band, and supporting act Adia Victoria.
After Isbell’s COVID case altered the touring plans back in January, there was no stopping the show this time. Not even Victoria’s sprained knee, which she suffered the day prior while getting a sub at Publix, could impede the show this time around as she ably performed her opening set from a pink picnic chair. The final song in her opening set saw the rising singer-songwriter stand on crutches to the sort of thunderous applause usually reserved for the most triumphant feats of athleticism.
The time then came for Isbell to finally serenade the people of the Blue Ridge Mountains with his prodigious body of work. As he recounted his circuitous, monthslong journey to the Western North Carolina music hub, Isbell summed up the three days he spent in an area hotel quarantining, plus another week in his tour bus parked outside his family’s Nashville home: “That sucked. This is the opposite of suck.”
With the opening “It Gets Easier” from 2020’s Reunions, the audience was dropped straight in to Isbell’s rise-fall-and-redemption saga like something out of a Greek tragedy. This artistic expansion of a stock Alcoholics Anonymous catchphrase transforms the cliche into sage advice regardless of the severity of one’s appetites.
As Isbell stated in the “Something More Than Free” that came next, he’s “doing what [he’s] on this Earth to do.” He proved just that with the anthemic line in the ensuing “Hope The High Road”, its line, “last year was a son-of-a-bitch,” having become something of a motto for our post-quarantine society. When I first saw Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit at Appalachian State University‘s Kidd Brewer Stadium last July in nearby Boone, NC, I was inclined to agree with that line. But on Saturday night, as my girlfriend and I celebrated our one-year anniversary, that quote couldn’t have felt further from the truth.
Though Isbell’s lyrics remain at the forefront of the group, the “Dreamsicle” that followed heard Sadler Vaden respectfully interject with his slide guitar. The band ditched the formalities from there as Jason grabbed a Les Paul for “Be Afraid”, reminding everyone we were, in fact, at a rock n’ roll concert.
After “Alabama Pines”, Jason Isbell played one of the greatest—by which I mean saddest—songs ever written, “Elephant”. The Unit cleared the stage here leaving the frontman, acoustic guitar in hand, alone with keyboardist Derry deBorja, who drove in the stakes with every minor chord.
Further on down the line, Isbell trotted out the rocking “Super 8”, which bookends his 2013 breakthrough, Southeastern. In it, he touches on a theme that recurs throughout his catalog, recounting cheap hotel debauchery “and talk about the bad ole days.” There’s a fine line between the glorification of overindulgence and the wisdom of being someone has looked clear over the edge to the other side. Jason Isbell straddles that line in a pair of collectible basketball sneakers like a Townes Van Zandt that grew up with MTV.
Even with a catalog as celebrated as Jason’s, nooks and crevices still exist like The Nashville Sound‘s “Last Of My Kind”, an easily overlooked gem. Tales of a “Speedtrap Town” and the lament of white privilege “What’ve I Done To Help” followed before Sadler took his turn in the spotlight with “Honeysuckle Blue” from his Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ days, a cover found on 2021’s Georgia Blue.
With time winding down as the sun dipped behind the horizon, it was time to bring out the big guns. Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit fired off heavy hitters “If We Were Vampires” and “24 Frames” before the time came to grab someone tight with “Cover Me Up”.
Just as Jason started the first verse, an array of flashlights in the crowd made apparent the need for medical intervention to help an attendee. Isbell briefly left the stage while the situation was remedied, returning minutes later to finish the song and the set. As he did, the line, “So girl, leave your boots by the bed we ain’t leaving this room / ‘Til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom” lingered in the breezy nighttime air.
Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit – “Cover Me Up” – 6/4/22
[Video: Angel Coldiron]
Following a brief encore break, the ensemble returned with Victoria following close behind on a pair of crutches. She led the band through a cover of Precious Bryant‘s “The Truth”, just as she did on Georgia Blue. The respiratory constraints of singing while on crutches notwithstanding, Victoria whispered out her vocals in a performance that found beauty in its delicacy.
Finally, to close out the show, Isbell reached back to his Drive-By Truckers days for the historical rocker to end all historical rockers, “Decoration Day”. The pinnacle personification of Isbell’s “talk about the bad ole days” mantra, Jason tossed another clump of dirt on grandaddy’s grave with each note of his smoldering, show-closing solo.
Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit’s tour continues tonight, June 5th, with a set at Riverbend Music Festival in Chattanooga, TN. For tickets and a full list of tour dates click here. Scroll down for a gallery of images from Steve Wittenberg/MeanPony Productions.
Setlist: Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit | Rabbit Rabbit | Asheville, NC | 6/5/22
Set: It Gets Easier, Something More Than Free, Hope The High Road, Dreamsicle, Be Afraid, Alabama Pines, Elephant, Overseas, Super 8, Last Of My Kind, Speedtrap Town, What’ve I Done To Help, Honeysuckle Blue (Drivin’ N’ Cryin’) , If We Were Vampires, 24 Frames, Cover Me Up 
Encore: The Truth (Precious Bryant) , Decoration Day (Drive-By Truckers)
 w/ Sadler Vaden on vocals
 Song was stopped during first verse for paramedics to help someone in the crowd, during which time Jason left the stage. He returned minutes later and restarted the song
 w/ Adia Victoria on vocals