Saturday, October 16, 2010

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit/Langhorne Slim; October 16, 2010; Double Door

So in retrospect it might have been a little silly to drive to Chicago to see Langhorne Slim play an opening set, but after seeing him put on yet another killer show in July I resolved to never miss him again if I could help it. Besides, in my mind Slim and Jason Isbell are equally popular. Granted, in my head things can be a little skewed, but I looked at this as more of a co-bill than an opener/headliner situation. I was wrong. Contributing to the short sets was the fact that there were a total of four bands on tonight’s bill, a stop on the Paste Magazine tour. I don’t like to miss openers, but even so we missed the first two bands. I was already pretty sure I wouldn’t like Jesse Sykes, and I didn’t know a thing about Mimicking Birds, but I wanted to give them both a chance. I felt better after a friend told me I hadn’t missed much. At the end of the night Isbell thanked all the bands, saying how great Slim and Sykes had been and how great the Mimicking Birds had been at mimicking birds. While that didn’t help at all, it was funny.

With only 45 minutes to wow us in Slim and his band hit the ground running, zipping through a set list heavy on songs from last year’s Be Set Free. As always, my favorite of those is “Cinderella,” the husky voices of his bandmates replying “yes my handsome fellow” to his invocation of the title character’s name always makes me smile. Slim is a human pinball on stage, bouncing from the top of the drum kit to the front of the stage, dropping to his knees and the staggering from side to side, his trademark hat going from his head to the floor to the head of a girl in the front row to his foot, as he attempts to flip it into the air and back on to his head. He comes close, but never quite succeeds. I realized this was the smallest stage I had seen them on when for the first time David Moore’s keyboard was set up so that I could actually see him play. I wasn’t the least bit surprised to see him pound the keys with the same ferocity that he strums the banjo, though “strum” doesn’t really describe the abuse he gives it.

Too soon their set was over, and if this show was meant to be an introduction to the types of music Paste covers, it failed. The crowd had swelled before Slim’s set, but as the bands switched over much of the female-heavy crowd drifted out. I thought they might be replaced by fans of Isbell’s former band the Drive By Truckers, but the popularity that band enjoys has not followed Isbell in his solo career. I always enjoyed Isbell with the Truckers, his songs were a nice contrast to those by Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, and his “Outfit” was easily the best track of their solid release Decoration Day. It wasn’t until I saw him solo the first time that I realized he’s never written a song above mid-tempo and that can get pretty tedious when you string them all together. During previous shows I’d been easily entertained during the slower moments by watching ridiculously good-looking guitarist Browan Lollar, but he was nowhere to be seen tonight. Eventually an audience member asked where he was, and Isbell responded that he was on tour with Azure Ray since those shows had been booked before this one. Too bad, that left only keyboardist Derry deBorja to watch, but without Lollar he also seemed a little distracted.

The crowd continued to diminish as Isbell mixed songs from his solo records in with those from his Trucker days, with nothing really standing out. Eventually when he announced that they just had one more song left and the opening notes revealed it wasn’t “Outfit,” we decided it was time to go. I wish I liked Isbell’s solo shows better, but other than a surprisingly rocking set at Twangfest in 2009, they always leave me ready to leave.

Langhorne Slim

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit

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