This past weekend in Canada, and indeed the across the British Commonwealth, we celebrated our Queen Victoria's birthday. It's widely known in Canada that this particular long weekend is typically the unofficial kickoff of summer. What it usually means is bucket loads of rain for those who head out to cottage country from Toronto, and enough cold weather to keep you bitching for days when you fight the traffic to get back to the city. I typically stay close to home on the long weekends. I live in a small town outside of Toronto, so I don't really miss the cottage thing. But mostly it's because I have no patience to sit in hours and hours of cottage rush hour traffic that runs for a hundred miles or more. Adding to my desire to stay close to home this past weekend was the news that Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit were playing the Legendary Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto, Ontario.
I was excited for this show for two reasons. Firstly, I have wanted to see and learn more of Jason's music since I began this journey of discovering Americana music. His music was one of my first encounters when I was researching the Americana Music Association where he was previously nominated in the New and Emerging Artist category. You can find a lot of his music and clips from his shows on You Tube, as well as his own web site. Secondly, the show was at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto. The Horseshoe has been around for 64 years and counting. It has played host to some of the most legendary acts in music. As a final dress rehearsal for their most recent world tour, the Rolling Stones played the Horseshoe to just a completely packed house. The concert area holds no more than 400 people ... so you can imagine what it must have been like to be there on that particular night. If you are in Toronto and want to check out a place where live music is still King every night, go to the Horseshoe. Great music and eclectic group of people. It's a really great, unique Toronto experience.
Anyhow, back to Jason and the 400 Unit. As I mentioned, I have been waiting somewhat patiently to check this act out, and the opportunity finally presented itself on Sunday May 22, 2011. Touring across North America to support his recently released album Here We Rest (Lightning Rod Records), I was thrilled to see a rather large crowd waiting for the boys to take the stage. Not sold out, but a good, enthusiastic crowd. In spite of the fact the show started 20 minutes late, these guys did not disappoint. Opening up with such numbers as "Alabama Pines" and "Never Could Believe" from the newest album, the band had the crowd hooked from the start. Working in a song from his previous self-titled album, "Soldiers Get Strange" and "Goddamn Lonely Love" (Live at the Twist and Shout, New West Records), Jason and the band showed they could work seamlessly from hard-driving, soulful and rocking alt-country, to a wonderful ballad from the new release with "Heart on a String."
Perhaps the most soulful tune of the evening was a story that is all too often told in North America, and that's the return of the soldier from active duty overseas. "Tour of Duty" tells the hard tale of a soldier trying to assimilate himself back in to everyday life on this side of the world, dreaming of doing the simple things that most of us take for granted. Highlighting the real simple pleasures in life, like eating chicken wings, and describing how even something as comforting as that can be challenging for some returning soldiers is a real credit to Jason Isbell's songwriting talents. It is a talent that was exhibited in spades on the stage of the Horseshoe on Sunday night.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit are touring all across North America this summer. Their next shows include stops in Bloomington, Illinois (Castle Theater) on May 25th; Chicago, Illinois (Lincoln Hall) on May 26th; Madison, Wisconsin (High Noon Saloon) on May 27th; and St. Paul, Minnesota on May 28th (Turf Club). Opening for Jason and the band is a wonderful young lady by the name of Maria Taylor, who accorded very well for herself on this night as well. If you are in those areas and are looking for a night of great entertainment, do check them out. It was a wonderful show.
For more tour dates and more information about Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, including ways to order albums, t-shirts and a whole host of other items, check out the bands' web site, a link to which is included in this entry.