The Practical Theology of a Jason Isbell Show

In anticipation of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s return to the Koka Booth Amphitheater in late June, here is my review from last fall’s set, with an added emphasis on Isbell and practical theology.

Switching back-and-forth between his favorite Telecaster and Gibson guitars on a buggy Friday evening in Cary, North Carolina, Jason Isbell and his 400 Unit band delivered a performance nothing short of revelatory. In-between the 100 decibel alluring guitar licks and Isbell’s Muscle Shoals, Alabama southern drawl blaring over the speakers, rapturous applause was all that could be heard from the Koka Booth Amphitheater crowd.

Isbell and the 400 Unit Band took the stage after the Milk Carton Kids’ opened with a quiet, acoustic 45-minute set. Isbell and the 400 Unit, often labeled as members of the Americana genre, are a five-piece band which leans on the slide guitar of Sadler Vaden. Smoke machines and overbearing light shows may be typical of the 21st century rock concerts, but Isbell’s 400 Unit does not follow suit. The only decoration on the stage is the band’s logo – an anchor and sparrow, in part inspired by Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather” – in stain glass form on the backdrop. The typical rock-and-roll conventions may be absent, but the deafening sound is still there. Isbell, as he noted throughout the concert, loves to rock.

Even the slow ballads that Isbell and the 400 Unit performed – like “Cover Me Up” and “Flagship” – become something of a spectacle in concert. Isbell’s lyrics are littered with references that have never been more personal until his voice ripped through the amphitheater. He sung about the desire for unending love in “If We Were Vampires,” of leaving home in “Speed Trap Town,” and of the fragility of life in “Elephant.” When Isbell sings about county fairs, high school football games, and endless highways he imagines the images are as clear in your mind as they are in his. His voice – which elicits the same sensation one gets when watching a purplish sunset or eating cookies fresh out of the oven – may be what the fans come for, but it is the lyrics that have the ability to move anyone to tears. Much like his lyrics, Isbell’s voice is unassuming and honest. It is practical and piercing. It is his vehicle for telling stories.

The divine was mentioned in passing throughout the concert. Isbell sings in “24 Frames”, “You thought God was an architect, now you know, he’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow. And everything you built was all for show and goes up in flames.” Later, during “Something More Than Free” Isbell sings the refrain, “Sunday morning I’m too tired to go to church, but I thank God for the work.” And in his latest tune “Maybe It’s Time” – performed by Bradley Cooper in “A Star is Born” – Isbell writes, “Nobody speaks to God these days. I’d like to think he’s looking down, laughing at our ways.” Passingly throughout the rest of his catalogue Isbell touches on his thoughts about God, however a constant theme does not occur.

Isbell does have a practical theology, though, which focuses on loving others as yourself and seeing potential in the world. After finishing “If We Were Vampires” on Friday evening – an award winning, gripping, tear-jerking love song – Isbell stripped his guitar, stepped to the microphone, and spoke, “Y’all take care of each other, you hear? Be good to one another.” Isbell preaches loving others – and his sermons are his songs.

This was evident when halfway through the concert Isbell and the band played “White Man’s World” which challenges the racial and gender inequalities built into the American psyche. Isbell sings, “There’s no such thing as someone else’s war. Your creature comforts aren’t the only thing worth fighting for. If you’re still breathing it’s not too late. We’re all carrying one big burden, sharing one fate.” “White Man’s World” elicited one of the strongest reactions from the crowd all night – a standing ovation from most.

The band followed it up with “Relatively Easy” off of Isbell’s solo record Southeastern. It seems the song is about people living a much more comfortable life than many around the world and not understanding their privilege. The chorus repeats, “Still compared to those a stone’s throw away from you, our lives have been relatively easy.” Isbell also performed “Cumberland Gap” which touches on the effect of strip mining and “Dress Blues” which challenges the purpose of war.

Isbell and his 400 Unit are extremely conscious of the world around them and the way the songs can enforce change. In an interview with NPR last year Isbell noted, “If we’re not talking about the things that we believe, then we’re not really using our voice to their full potential, and we’re not really making art.”[1] When Isbell was asked what influence he would like to have as a musician, he said he wants people to “see(ing) that something is possible” and that something is different for everyone.

Many of the tunes Isbell and the 400 Unit played were peppered with a longing for change, and a wistful yearn for comfort in a world of pain. These lyrics about longing and searching for this time when what we yearn for becomes possible – perhaps a world full of justice and mercy and truth and love – may be what draws listeners the most. Isbell taps into the part of humanity that is always hoping and searching. That piece inside of every human that recognizes fallenness and dreams of change. The hope for Christians – the coming kingdom – is never specifically mentioned by Isbell. He never sings of “thy kingdom come” or the time when “every knee will bow,” but his lyrics express the longing that everyone faces and the brokenness that everyone feels all too well. And that is a sermon that everyone needs to hear.

[1] Hight, Jewly. “Naming The Beast: Jason Isbell And Amanda Shires On Speaking Up In 2017.” NPR. December 18, 2017. Accessed October 15, 2018.


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