Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit/Justin Townes Earle; April 17, 2009; High Noon Saloon
I had my mind all made up to go see the United Sons of Toil at the Frequency tonight where they were supposed to be the opening band. While I don’t heart them as much as Michelle does, it turns out that I do like them a surprising amount. But then I got an offer I couldn’t refuse, Andy Moore was covering Justin Townes Earle for the online version of No Depression and he needed a photographer. I could see the show as his guest, and my photos would be featured with his story. While they don’t pay as well as they did when they were a publication (that first check was pretty exciting), I never get tired of seeing my name in print.
For the second time tonight I found myself surrounded by worshipful fans, and feeling like the odd man out. There’s no shortage of bands that I swoon over, but tonight’s acts are not on that lengthy list. I had seen JTE a number of times years ago, both playing with and opening for his father. I remember him as a ragged, skinny kid who just wanted to rock, but the father’s son who signed with Bloodshot and just released his second CD with them bears little resemblance to him. He’s cleaned up, traded his flannel for western shirts, started using his middle name and started playing and singing more like Hank Sr than Earle Sr.
The music is likeable enough, especially his nicely reworked cover of the Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait” (which Jason Isbell joined him for), and sideman Cory Younts on banjo, guitar and harmonica was all the support he needed instrumentally, but there was something vaguely unsettling about his pencil-thin mustache and snake-oil “Ladies and Gentlemen” salesman pitch. Maybe he has changed his ways and was born again into old-time country music, but it felt contrived, a shrewdly conceived notion of what will sell. Or maybe I’m just a jaded cynic. Though I will admit, I fell in love with Younts’ awesome mustache.
Then came the good news, somehow USoT had ended up second on the bill and they were just setting up as JTE finished his set. I made it over to the Frequency in time to catch all but three of their songs. The new instrumental song which had a hard time getting off the ground the last time I saw them came off without a hitch. As before, my favorite part is when lead singer/guitarist Russell Hall and bassist Bill Borowski would sing (er, scream) together, somehow increasing the urgency of their power punk tunes.
I made it back to the High Noon in time to catch the second half of Jason Isbell’s set. I adored Isbell in the Truckers, his mid-tempo tunes provided a nice contrast to Patterson and Cooley’s mostly rocking compositions. In addition, I’ve always been a sucker for his cherubic good looks, an innocence he somehow maintains even when drinking Jack out of the bottle (one Trucker habit he kept). The problem is that without the other two songwriters all those mid-tempo tunes start to sound a little bit same-y. Even though I was too late to hear “Outfit,” easily the best song he has ever written, half a set was about the right amount of him. Luckily, when I get bored with the music, there is always gorgeous guitarist Browan Loller and adorable keyboardist Derry deBorja to watch.