I first became aware of the Drive-By Truckers around the time of their 2008 release, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. In the years after that, I liked them, but remained a casual fan at best. Then, a few years ago, there was the one-two punch of the Truckers’ English Oceans, and former Truckers member Jason Isbell’s Southeastern. Both blew my mind and have lead to an obsession, bordering on unhealthy, ever since. I’d heard Isbell’s other solo albums, but for me, Southeastern was the one where he stopped being the block who used to be a Drive-By Trucker, and became one of the absolute best song writers in music today.
I missed his Southeastern tour for some reason I can’t remember, but I knew there was no way I wouldn’t be there this time around as he hit Australia with his band The 400 Unit in support of last year’s double Grammy winner, Something More Than Free. And you know what, after months of anticipation, my high hopes were nothing compared to the amazing show I got last night.Kicking off with Stockholm, one of Southeastern’s real standouts on a record full of standouts, Isbell’s southern charm was in full effect as he thanked the crowd through a beaming smile that seemed like he was genuinely excited to be there. Other highlights from that album included Travelling Alone and Cover Me Up. While Something More Than Free was represented with killer renditions of If It Takes a Lifetime, 24 Frames and the title track amongst others.
Isbell got a huge cheer from the crowd when he mentioned his old band, before launching into a soaring version of his Drive-By Truckers era Decoration Day. I don’t think I have a favourite Isbell song, because that changes with every album listen, but I’d say Never Gonna Change is definitely my most listened to Isbell penned Truckers song. And the epic, extended version I saw last night was nothing short of phenomenal. Complete with a blistering five minute guitar solo from the front man, as well as a call and response six string battle with 400 Unit guitarist Sadler Vaden.
I was a little disappointed to see that fiddle player and vocalist Amanda Shires wasn’t on stage with the rest of the band. Her violin and harmonies are a pretty big part of the studio versions of these songs, but between Vaden’s guitar and Derry Deborja’s piano and keys work, they filled the fiddle gap in really cool ways.
Kicking off the encore with Southeastern’s tragically beautiful Elephant, I now know what a thousand people in rapt attention with a collective lump in their throat sounds like. All before he bringing everything home with the rousing Codeine from 2011’s Here We Rest.
After three years of anticipation, I walked into the Melbourne Recital Hall a little worried that maybe I’d built the show up too much in my head. I left wondering how Jason Isbell and the 400 unit managed to so immensely exceed every expectation. Now, all I need is for Isbell to keep his promise about emailing the Drive-By Truckers to tell them how much Australia wants them to come back, so I can hopefully fulfill the other live half of my ever growing, borderline unhealthy obsession.