Different days

Jason Isbell brings country/rock soul to Cincinnati

By Zach Rogers

Photo: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit will perform at the Taft Theatre in Cincinnati on Feb. 3; photo: Michael Wilson

2013 was a great year for music, and nobody seems to be enjoying the fruits of their labor more than Jason Isbell. Since the release of his latest album Southeastern last June, Isbell has been touring the globe in support of the record, receiving nonstop critical praise along the way. Already in gear for another trek across the U.S., Isbell and his backing band the 400 Unit will be making a stop through Cincinnati on Monday, Feb. 3 at the Taft Theatre. Even with all the attention, Isbell remains a humble man at heart, thankful for it all.

“It’s been a great year,” Isbell said. “I put out a record that people paid a lot of attention to, and it just took off from there. The crowds got bigger, traveling got a little more comfortable and I’m just grateful for everything.”

Southeastern is Isbell’s fourth solo release following his departure from alt-country rockers Drive-By Truckers in 2007. Isbell joined the group in 2001 while they were on tour in support of their album Southern Rock Opera, and went on to record three albums with the group before parting ways. His first solo effort, 2007’s Sirens of the Ditch, was recorded at the legendary FAME Studios in his home state of Alabama. His next album was the first to feature Isbell’s 400 Unit, and every album since has featured the group in one form or another. The current lineup features Chad Gamble on drums, Jimbo Hart on bass, Derry DeBorja on keyboards and Sadler Vaden on guitar.

“We’re playing some really good venues and rock n’ roll clubs along the East Coast and through the Midwest,” Isbell said. “I’m excited to get back out on the road, and I think now we’ve got a lot of new people coming to the shows, which is great. I love that. Sometimes my favorite kinds of folks are people who are looking to be impressed, and I enjoy that challenge.”

Challenges are certainly something Isbell is all too familiar with. This year has played out like some kind of comeback story for the singer. Southeastern was recorded after a stint in rehab where Isbell took the time to clear his head and battle his demons. His love affair with Jack Daniel’s was no secret – especially during his days with the Truckers – and his early solo releases saw a man who was bloated and worn out. Finally, in February 2012, with the help of girlfriend (now wife) singer/songwriter Amanda Shires, manager Traci Thomas and friend Ryan Adams, Isbell entered rehab, where he spent two weeks getting it all back together. When he left, he shed 40 pounds and spent the summer writing songs that would later appear on Southeastern. The album was produced by Dave Cobb, who developed a unique recording chemistry with Isbell.

“He did a really great job with it,” Isbell said of Cobb. “He was very easy to communicate with, and I think he and I had the same vision going into the album. We wanted to record these songs in a way that was true to the material and honest, and the whole recording process was actually pretty easy. Sometimes you feel like you have to punch a wall or something in order to get a good record out, but that wasn’t the case here.”

In the middle of recording the new album, Isbell was also in the process of getting married, which added some stress to the recording sessions.

“We were kind of constrained timewise because I got married immediately after I finished recording. I went in the day after the wedding to do a couple overdubs before we went on our honeymoon, so that was a bit stressful, but in all honesty it was a great experience. Looking back, I think maybe it should have been a lot harder than it was.”

Taken as a whole, every experience leading up to the album’s release seems pivotal to its existence. Southeastern is by far his best work to date, even better than the songs he was writing with the Truckers, and the proof is in the acclaim. Recently, NPR music critic Ken Tucker named Southeastern his number one pick in his Top 10 Albums of 2013 year end list, and NPR also placed the album among its 50 Favorite Albums of 2013. For someone who’s been to the bottom and come out on top, the future looks bright, and clear.

“When a whole lot of people agree your album is good, it reaffirms your belief in yourself,” said Isbell. “You always question the work you’re doing when you’re in the middle of doing it, but I think this new material was a lot stronger and more consistent than anything I’d done in the past. I think that’s a big part of why people liked it. We worked really hard on it, and when people start praising your work, it’s definitely a great feeling.”

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit will perform on Monday, Feb. 3 at the Taft Theatre, 317 E. Fifth St. in Cincinnati. Also on the bill is Holly Williams. Tickets range from $22.50 to $30. Doors open at 7 p.m., show starts at 8 p.m. For more information, please visit jasonisbell.com. 

Reach DCP freelance writer Zach Rogers at ZachRogers@DaytonCityPaper.com. 

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