Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit and Father John Misty are a pretty strange pairing, to say the least. The latter, a sardonic crooner with a penchant for irony and sexy dance moves, has been at the forefront of the indie/folk rock genre for the better part of the past decade; while the former is an unassuming multi-Grammy award winning singer/songwriter whose hopeful yet politically charged lyrics have redefined what it means to be a country music star. Both are impassioned songwriters, and while each artist’s sound may be on exact opposite ends of the folk/country spectrum, they pair well together. Well, kind of. Their co-headlining tour stopped at Huntington Bank Pavilion at Northerly Island on a chilly, rainy Saturday evening, and while both artists put on amazing performances, it still felt sort of…weird.
British singer songwriter Jade Bird opened the show, whose cute, authentic laugh and goofy attitude contrasted well with her introspective lyrics. Playing from her self titled 2019 debut album, standouts included “Side Effects” and “I Get No Joy”, with her fast, intense singing and loud guitar playing earning multiple cheers throughout the crowd mid-song. Just her and her white acoustic guitar, she seemed quite small on stage but humongous in sound.
Father John Misty sauntered on stage next, his usual dapper clothing traded for a navy blazer and baggy pants, boots and a man bun. His ostentatiousness and pitch perfect sound were still there, however, as he walked to the mic ever so casually with his hands in his pocket, starting the set with “Hangout at the Gallows,” the opening track from his latest album, God’s Favorite Customer. The dynamic set spanned hits from Misty’s entire catalog, and included the tour debut of “We’re Only People (And There’s Not Much Anyone Can Do About That)”, as well as new song “Time Makes a Fool of us All”, reminiscent of I’m Your Man-era Leonard Cohen. Misty was on top of his performance game, prancing and strutting across the stage, swinging the mic and shaking his hips as the sun set on Northerly Island.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit were the headliners of the evening, with Isbell taking the stage wearing a Stetson hat and Nikes. The band started off with the energetic “Go It Alone” from 2011’s Here We Rest, continuing with a variety of songs both with the full band and solo, including Grammy award winning “24 Frames” and “If We Were Vampires”, as well as new song “Overseas”. Though Isbell’s songwriting tends to lean towards the sad side, the band was lively and captivating to watch, with every member of the band being immensely talented in their own right. Notably absent was 400 Unit violinist and Isbell’s wife Amanda Shires, who is currently on tour supporting her latest solo album, but the band’s musical talent made up for her absent with keyboardist Derry deBorja adding in her recorded violin parts when necessary. Isbell’s skillful guitar playing was a highlight of the evening, his masterful slide guitar adding a bluesy element to his personalized country leaning style.
While the event was billed as a co-headlining tour with Jade Bird opening, it seemed more as if it was a Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit concert, with Father John Misty as the opener. Though this was no fault of either artist, it just seemed as if both artists had such opposite fan bases that the tour just didn’t work. Each artist is headliner worthy and it just doesn’t seem right to have one open for the other, whichever that one may be. Admittedly, I’m a humongous Misty fan, but I wouldn’t expect an award-winning singer/songwriter with the caliber of Jason Isbell to be an “opener” either. Though the tour is “co-headlining”, the closer switches off different nights seemingly based on who has a bigger fan base in that location, which makes sense logistically. However, from a fan perspective, its slightly unfair, because for each individual event it creates the illusion that one artist is more important than the other. That being said: because of this tour, I’ve gotten to know Isbell’s music more, turning me into a fan of his distinctive songwriting skills when I otherwise probably wouldn’t have taken the time to listen to his music in depth. I just hope others took the cue to do the same.