A great night for rock and roll

FAYETTEVILLE – There’s something about live music that’s good for the soul.

Opportunities for such have been slim in these pandemic times but there’s concerts to be had for those willing and such was the case last Saturday night in Fayetteville as Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, along with opening act Heartless Bastards performed in front of a sold-out crowd at JJ’s Live, a concert hall besides the Target and not to be confused with the JJ’s on Dickson Street.

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And not to be confused with the other JJ’s, and if you haven’t been to northwest Arkansas recently, it gets a little confusing as things have changed quite a bit.

Jason Isbell on stage last Saturday at JJ’s Live in Fayetteville. (Jeremy Peppas)

Isbell, and his band, have been touring this year and put down a requirement that proof of  vaccination was required to attend. It caused a bit of a stir among the dumb as some earlier shows were cancelled as venues wouldn’t comply. That wasn’t the case earlier this year when he had a sold-out show at the First Security Amphitheater in the River Market and it wasn’t the case on Saturday night either. JJ’s Live pitched in as well as they reduced capacity to allow for a little more room to move and mingle.

As venues go, it could have used some seating. Having pit tickets, plus getting there early meant nearly five hours on a solid concrete floor and while the Hokas have exceptional cushioning, it was still an agonizing experience that started at the feet and worked its way up. While to the inexperienced eye it might have looked like moving and grooving to the beat, it was actually a desperate attempt to restore feeling in the toes.

Still worth it.

Isbell put on a helluva show, which is kind of his thing. He’s not flashy. He’s not a showman like Garth Brooks or putting on a fireworks spectacle like some heavy metal drummer.

He’s a craftsman and he’s good at his craft.

As a singer, as a songwriter and as a guitarist, he’s just good at those things.

You won’t hear his songs on the radio much though as Isbell’s brand of twangy, Alabama-infused rock and roll doesn’t fit into either the country or pop music buckets.

As a songwriter, the lyrics go deep and there’s whole novels contained in lines like this from Decoration Day, the song that closed the show and from Isbell’s stint with the Drive-By Truckers:

And they've never seen my Daddy's grave.

But that don't bother me, it ain't marked anyway.

And as guitarist, Isbell’s top three I’ve seen live, with the others being Vince Gill and Wilco’s Nels Cline.

Saturday night’s show was solid from start to finish. The crowd, at least in the pit, sang along to every word. It was a joyous experience to have that back again. Virus be damned.

Some highlights were breaking out covers from Georgia Blue and for those of us of a certain age, hearing Sadler Vaden’s cover of Drivin N Cryin’s Honeysuckle Blue, again, for the first time live since the 90s was a real high point.

A screen grab from the Instagram live feed of Amanda Shires.

The band was joined by Isbell’s wife, Amanda Shires, for the show and her presence elevated the night to a different level.

It isn’t recency bias. Her fiddle and backing vocals just made something already good, better.

Her cover of Cat Power’s Cross Bones Style was also terrific.

It was a great night for rock and roll.