Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Great American Music Hall, 9/8/2012

Dedicated with much love to the Greene Ninja.
Rock on, Peter Griffin
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
It was the root beer float that finally calmed my inner turmoil, leftovers from a bad day and a bad week.

They say that the olfactory sense, sense of smell, is tied closest to long term memory. There are evolutionary reasons for this, explained better by writers such as Harold McGee, Michael Pollan or Mark Kurlansky (among others).

They say that taste is, essentially, smell. The process is the same: taste buds and olfactory receptors detect the make-up of complex compounds - salt, sweet, sour, bitter, umami.

I can't remember the last exact time I had a root beer float, but I must have been 10 or 11. Maybe I had some since, but the ones I remembered were in a "frosted glass" plastic mug that came as a promotional item with A&W Root Beer. The cup finally disintegrated after repeated washings. First cracking, then breaking apart.

10, or 11, through the distorted lens of memory, was a carefree time. The reality was much more complex and I will say simply that those weren't trouble-free times. However, memory lies, and in the moment I felt at ease.

Putting a root beer float on the menu at the Great American Music Hall was a stroke of genius... $7 for the hand crafted Hank's Gourmet Root Beer plus vanilla ice cream is a small price to pay for nostalgia.


The Great American Music Hall is one of several old-school music venues in the city that offer dinner service with shows* - the last vestigial trace of a long gone era of the cabaret. Looking at the decor, gilded, carved sconces and tiled mirrors and a scalloped balcony, one can imagine Scotch-soaked rat-pack wannabes (or perhaps the capital-R Rat capital-P Pack themselves) smoking cigars over filet mignon as crooners and starlets belted their way through dinner and into the night.

That must have been a glorious, fabulous San Francisco. Of course, the reality probably lacks the polish, glitter and luster of my fabricated memories of San Francisco at the height of the 1950s. Regardless, those who were charged with restoring the Great American, along with those who restored great old venues like the Fox Theatre or the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland, or even Landmark's Oriental in Milwaukee, are thankfully of a deeply sentimental breed.

( * Sister venue, Slims, also has dinner service. So does Bimbo's 365 Club. The Fillmore has an upstairs cafeteria and of course plucky Thee Parkside has it's backyard patio and kitchen. )


We were all gathered around the tree, freshly rinsed from a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am deluge that was gone as soon as it had arrived. The camp counselor plucked a few leaves off and handed them out.

"Taste it."

At that age, you don't ask questions or worry. This was before Tylenol tampering scares or razorblades in Halloween candy. The horror of the Adam Walsh kidnapping and murder was just beginning to slowly make its indelible impression on our collective psyches, having been too young to comprehend the anxieties of our parents and older siblings at the time.

"Tastes like root beer," I offered, and murmurs of agreement sounded.

The leaf was from a sassafras tree whose bark and sap were used to flavor the original root beer, a "small beer" (a fermented beverage similar to ginger beer) first made popular in Philadelphia.

It was summer and we were trudging through the forest of western Pennsylvania ("Penn's forest", named so for the lush flora that still blankets the state, probably similar to the foliage William Penn must have encountered in the 17th Century - only then completely unspoiled and populated by the First Nations).

For all my troubles growing up, those were halcyon days: digging for arrowheads, catching fireflies, trapping and popping forget-me-not seed pods then eating the sour, savory seeds, getting chased by evil white-and-black giant hornets that I dubbed "Darth Vader Bugs", watching mom and dad destroy mud dauber nests (in Ohio they came in two varieties - brown and blue - their sleek bodies evoking another sort of "vespa"), having your older sister burn leeches off you with a cigarette after you swam through an algae covered swamp (one my adult self would not even dip a toe into).


"...and he used to play with My Little Pony," said Kim, breaking my reverie.

"Oh yeah," Kody laughed, "but the worst were the Care Bears."

"I had all of them," I admitted. Toys were toys back then.

Hank's Gourmet Root Beet uses the bark and sap of sassafras, cane sugar and molasses. Sassafras, in its pure form, is hard to describe - a flavor that has edges and nuances and hints and aromas that would (and probably does) drive most sommeliers crazy. There's a tinge of licorice. There's sweetness. There's cinnamon (of Ceylon). There's almost a medicinal numbing. It tastes like childhood, there's no other way to describe it.

Add a big scoop of ice cream and suddenly it's as if you've just hit your first home run in junior softball league.


The person for whom the last ticket was intended had the flu and couldn't make it to the show.

Frantic attempts were made to find a suitable replacement. One by one they couldn't make it. It was too last minute. These things happen.

I sat next to Jesse's kid brother Kody and his new bride Kim (the concert tickets were my wedding present to the couple). I took a sip of my root beer float and announced:

"Fuck it. That ticket is for Jesse."

Everyone nodded solemnly. Glasses were raised, then knocked against the bar for luck. It had been nearly two years since cancer took him away from us, just days shy of his 34th birthday.


Jason Isbell had snuck onto the balcony and was sitting at the table next to mine to watch the opening act, a hodgepodge consisting of Portland, OR singer-songwriter Kasey Anderson, Washington-state singer-songwriter Star Anna and a keyboard player whose name I didn't catch. Star Anna and Anderson took turns singing or backing each other up.

Near the end of his set, Anderson lost half the crowd with over-the-top sardonic quips assailing everything from the SF music scene (which, if you asked me, is not all it's cracked up to be), Journey (at the very least, overrated - "nothing makes white people dance like Journey" quipped Anderson, who later quoted "Don't Stop Believing", pausing after the audience started to sing along to note, as an aside, "fucking idiots!") and finally, fatally, the Giants ("you're just mad because you got your asses kicked by the Dodgers", boos).

That said, Anderson is a solid songwriter, a folk guitarist with a barely concealed punk ethos who tells stories of fatally flawed yet noble characters wincing against the grit and cruelty of reality. His inability to contain his sarcasm between songs played big to me as a nervous tic - Anderson helpless to avoid biting the hand that feeds him.

Star Anna closed the set with a song from some deep place within her slight frame - a soulful wail channelling the best R&B torch singers (and why not, after all San Francisco is the land of Janis Joplin). The trio, that what it was, was redeemed. I contemplated having Anderson sign a CD with "Go Dodgers" just to rile up my roommate, a life long Giants fan (it's just sports, Caitlin!).

Hailing from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Isbell collaborated with the Drive-by Truckers from 2001 to 2007, contributing the title track to 2003's Decoration Day. Remaining on friendly terms (Isbell has appeared with the Drive-by Truckers on a few occasions), Isbell left to record his first solo album Sirens of the Ditch in 2007.

In 2009 Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit (his new band whose current and permanent line-up consists of keyboard player Derry Deborja of Baltimore, bass player Jimbo Hart of Muscle Shoals and drummer Chad Gamble) released their self-titled debut album. Their latest offering, Here We Rest, was released in 2011.

Isbell has won the praise of numerous music critics but seems to be more concerned with connecting with his fans in concert and using social media (he has an active Twitter time-line, frequently interacting with band mates, other artists such as Neko Case and Amanda Shires, a violinist, singer and songwriter).


Earlier, my roommate returned from a cigarette break minutes before the show began.

"I gave away Jesse's ticket."

Go on...

"She looked upset and she was standing outside alone," she told me. "At least it went to a good cause. You... Jesse made some hippy girl's night."

I never did meet the girl, nor was she ever pointed out to me. Suits me, I've never been comfortable with attention for acts of kindness.

Whoever you are, I hope you enjoyed the show.


The menu of food items available at the Great American Music Hall is lengthy considering that it is now primarily a rock venue. Items like "Kobe Pork Spare Ribs" (huh?)* and "Ratatouille Stuffed Eggplant" are available entrée items, but I'd probably stick with simple bar fare such as the pulled pork sandwich or Niman Ranch burger.

If you've been drinking, the sweets or starters will likely hit the spot should you become peckish. Here you will find standards like chips and salsa, quesadillas, onions rings, french fries (a thick steak cut, but clearly frozen), as well as warmed candied nuts, salad and a Mediterranean spread of hummus, tzatziki, pita, crudité and falafel. Sweet tooth? The aforementioned float or perhaps a bruleé banana split?

While I can't vouch for the food (the burger looked good from where I was sitting, close enough to steal french fries from Kim), I can vouch for the root beer float.

* Kobe is a region of Japan. The name is synonymous with the beef they produce, Wagyu, which is not available in the U.S. due to import laws no matter what your menu tells you. Those "Kobe" and "Wagyu" sliders you are being offered are neither and not worth the mark up. That said, there are several varieties of "heritage" pork bred in Japan, and none of them are referred to as "kobe" or "wagyu".


"Hello San Francisco, we're Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit from Muscle Shoals, Alabama."

Jason Isbell took the stage with the 400 Unit tearing into "Try", a hard rocking tune with a slight twang about a scorned woman (and a man's futile attempts to placate her) off his debut album "Sirens of the Ditch".

He moved through a set populated by songs mostly from his solo album or the two 400 Unit albums.  Early on he would rely more heavily on fan favorites from the Drive-by Truckers oeuvre, but has over the last two years shifted to his solo material as fans have familiarized themselves. That said, there was no shortage of Drive-by Truckers songs performed on Saturday, September 8, 2012.

Notably absent (perhaps I was sensitive to this as I am on a self-imposed break from adult beverages*) was the bottle of Jack Daniels. Jason took the stage with what appeared to be a cup of tea and drank water throughout the show.

Whether there is some deeper meaning to beverage choice or Isbell was just giving his liver some well deserved time off I don't know. I do know that the devil whiskey has taken its toll on many of my favorite artists who famously swill it onstage, most notably and recently Ween.

Isbell has a lot of range both as a guitarist and as a songwriter spanning: soul, rhythm and blues, county, folk and rock and roll. He also allows his band mates to show off their many talents with extended improvised solos. Mid-set he takes an onstage breather to let his drummer lead off on a riotous cover of The Meters' "Hey Pocky Way".

But Isbell also excels at introspection and ballads, and is a capable manager of audience temperament - raising the temperature when he needs, and cooling them off when he needs with an arsenal of sentimental, provocative and often down-right sad songs (to which every audience member dutifully sings along).

The title track of Decoration Day is a murder ballad in 3/4 time, a dirty, deadly waltz about a latter-day Hatfield and McCoy-like feud whose origins had long since been forgotten ("I don't know how it all got started..."), and the inner-tension of a survivor between his loyalty and hostility toward his murdered father:
It’s Decoration Day
and I’ve got a family in Mobile Bay
and they’ve never seen my Daddy’s grave.
But that don’t bother me, it ain’t marked anyway.
Cause I got dead brothers in Lauderdale south
and I got dead brothers in east Tennessee.
My Daddy got shot right in front of his house
he had no one to fall on but me.
Perhaps one of the saddest, or at least most personal (as if any song a songwriter writes isn't personal) is the baleful "Goddamn Lonely Love" off Drive-by Truckers album The Dirty South. The live version with the 400 Unit is punched up from the original but the meaning and arc of the song still comes through: an intense relationship dissolves and the singer transitions through sentiment and nostalgia ("you could come to me by plane but that wouldn't be the same as that old hotel room in Texarcana was..."), denial ("well I'm not really drowning 'cuz I see the beach from here..."), fatalism ("I'm not really falling asleep I'm fading to black...") and resignation ("the sun's a desperate star that burns like every single one before...") intense longing ("if I could find another dream, one that keeps me warm and clean...") and finally complete isolation ("all I've got is this goddamn lonely love").

"Goddamn Lonely Love" is one of two down-tempo ballads appearing on The Dirty South, the other is the cryptic, perhaps confessional dirge "Danko/Manuel" centered around The Band's Rick Danko and Richard Manuel. Both artists succumbed to alcohol and drug related health problems, Manuel in 1986 and Danko in 1999. It is a song that for whatever reason I've rarely seen Isbell play. That song opened his two song encore.

That was the "holy shit!" moment of show, the entire audience stunned at this rare opportunity to hear the song played live. The audience sing-along intensified, and Isbell allowed himself to be drowned out during the third verse, looking around with a satisfied smile.

After tearing through a driving, bluesy song, something presumably new, the house lights went up and a satisfied crowd slowly dispersed. The baby-faced boy genius from Alabama had once again worked his magic.

( * Hence the root-beer float. )


Finally, here's one dedicated to the Greene Ninja.

This is a song written by Patterson Hood and performed by the Drive-By Truckers:

Happy birthday, Jesse Greene.

September 19, 1976 - September 17, 2010.

Gone but never forgotten. We love you and miss you.


Great American Music Hall
859 O'Farrell Street San Francisco, CA 94109
(415) 885-0750

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit


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