Marty Stuart and Jason Isbell at The Amp: St. Augustine
After being postponed once, this show was a somewhat unexpected treat for the capacity crowd at the St. Augustine Amphitheater (known as The Amp), a solid mid-sized venue with great sound and seating. The two Nashville-based luminaries had never played a show together; both are riding high right now and starting long post-COVID tours, and it was clear the musicians and the fans were fired up for live music.
Marty Stuart’s not your usual opening act. A Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, Grand Ole Opry star, and five-time Grammy winner, he and his band the Fabulous Superlatives have been packing fans in for years. “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan is one of the greatest country-style guitar pickers alive, drummer and tenor singer Harry Stinson has been a force in Nashville since the ’70s, and Chris Scruggs, Earl’s grandson and a master of musicianship, joined the group in 2015. They’re a tight and entertaining band, and their set showcased their strong ties to traditional music with a modern flair. The short set included some of his classics: “Country Boy Rock and Roll,” an old Reno and Smiley chestnut, showcases some country chicken picking and duet singing by Vaughan and Stuart; “Mojave,” a Ventures-style dual guitar number, and one of my favorites, “Old Mexico,” a western song that recalls Marty Robbins and showcases the fine harmony singing of this group. Both of those last two songs, plus the almost psychedelic “Time Don’t Wait,” are from the Way Out West album, which was produced by, of all people, Mike Campbell, the Heartbreakers’ guitar player. Harry Stinson added the Woody Guthrie tune “Pretty Boy Floyd,” Marty did his solo mandolin jaw-dropping version of “Orange Blossom Special”, and they closed the set with some more blazing guitar stuff on “Tear the Woodpile Down” and the gospel song “Angels Rock Me to Sleep.”
The crowd was revved up for Isbell and the 400 Unit. He’s only played a few shows in the last year, and his album Reunions was released in the middle of the pandemic to great acclaim (see my review here). His set reflected their stated desire to play their new music for an audience, with seven out of the 18 songs taken from that album. Reunions is relatively guitar-centric; although the majority of his die-hard fans consider him the greatest songwriter of his generation (as John Mayer once called him), Jason is a rock and roll guy at heart, and his live shows reflect that. It’s interesting to watch him take more acoustic offerings like “Overseas” and add more edge to them in live performance. Another great example is “Last of My Kind.” Performing one of his most heartfelt and somber songs about the isolation rural people feel in cities and the loss of their lifestyle (“…the family farm’s the parking lot for the Walton’s five and dime”), he has added instrumental breaks at the end of the song, with him and Sadler Vaden trading acoustic and electric guitar riffs. The songs from Reunions were clearly known by the audience; the melancholy “Only Children,” written about a childhood friend who died young that has a Knopfler-inspired guitar sound; “Running with Our Eyes Closed,” a longer view of what happens after the first flush of a relationship; his personal reflection back on his own history of substance abuse in “It Gets Easier,” and the effects of divorce on children in “Dreamsicle.”
His comment that he wanted to do some songs from his 2014 groundbreaking release Southeastern brought a cheer from the crowd, but he did songs from all his more recent albums: “Hope the High Road,” “If We Were Vampires,” and “Last of My Kind” from The Nashville Sound; “24 Frames” and “The Life you Chose” from Something More than Free.
He closed with his hard-core reflection on Southern culture “Never Gonna Change,” which he wrote as a member of the Drive-By Truckers. Blazing, soaring guitar breaks and interplay between Isbell and Vaden had the audience on their feet. For an encore, he led with an REM cover, “Driver 8.” As a backstory, during the 2020 election, Isbell stated on Twitter that if Georgia went blue he would record a cover album of Georgia-related songs. While no advance knowledge about the album is known, this is likely going to be one of the songs on that album. His final encore was the rock-tinged cautionary party song “Super 8.”
The 400 Unit is one of the tightest bands touring today. They’ve been together for years now. The rhythm section of Chad Gamble on drums and Jimbo Hart on bass is spectacular and add more to the mix than just rhythm. Hart took a tasty yet flashy bass break on “What Have I Done to Help,” and Gamble’s use of timpani at a crucial point of “Cover Me Up” brought people to their feet. Derry deBorja’s expansive keyboards add depth to their sound, and he can step out front with an accordion and rock as he does when they do “Codeine.” Sadler Vaden could (and does) front a band by himself, but he and Isbell are the perfect duo for their uptempo songs: “Never Gonna Change,” “What Have I Done to Help,” “Be Afraid,” and “Super 8.” Vaden is a monster guitar player, a master of rock, acoustic or slide.
One can tell a committed fan base by listening to the audience. While it drives many listeners crazy when an entire audience sings along with every word in a song, you are looking at devoted fans. In this show, The Amp echoed with the audience’s input during Jason’s love song to his wife Amanda, “Cover Me Up” from Southeastern. They sang along on “Last of My Kind,” “Hope the High Road” (written after the 2016 election that pretty clearly states his politics in case you don’t follow him on social media), and even new songs like “Overseas.” He’s become a multiple Grammy-winning “star,” whatever that means, but the humanity reflected in his songs is as present as ever and mirrors his own. At one point late in the set, I noticed him lean off the front of the stage and interact with someone; I had no idea what was happening, but a young man with Down Syndrome was in front of the stage, and Jason came down and posed for a picture with him in the middle of things. Anybody that follows him would not be surprised by this gesture, and that’s one reason they are so fiercely dedicated to him and his music.
Set list, St. Augustine Amphitheater
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
July 11th, 2021
Hope the High Road
It Gets Easier
Something More Than Free
Life You Chose
Last of My Kind
Running With Our Eyes Closed
Cover Me Up
What’ve I Done to Help?
If We Were Vampires
Never Gonna Change
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
St. Augustine Amphitheater