Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit July 30, 2021 Red Butte Garden Amphitheater

Photo Credit: Kevin Rolfe

I don’t think I’ve been as excited about a concert as I was for this one in a long time.  July 30, 2021, marked the opening of the Summer Concert Series at Red Butte Garden.  Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit headlined with the great Lucinda Williams supporting.  It was a night I had anticipated since the Red Butte Garden announced their summer lineup this spring.  

Like so many others, the Concert Series had to cancel last season because we were right in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.  It didn’t feel like summer in 2020 without a visit to Red Butte Gardens, so it was a great feeling to walk through those gates and see a sold-out crowd.   

I felt like it had been ages since I’d been on that grassy amphitheater and at the same time, it felt like I had just been there.  I had to look it up and in fact, our last show at Red Butte was Tash Sultana in September 2019, the closing show of that season.  That’s a really long time to have been away from this iconic venue and concert series.  So it was good to be back seeing people in their chairs, with picnic baskets, bottles of wine, and enjoying themselves before the music even started.  

I had several people come up to me (I think they noticed the camera bag and press pass.  Or I have a friendly face.  Either one.) and share with me, unprovoked, how happy they were to be back. One man even told me that he felt like concerts at Red Butte Gardens were his church and that he was happy to be attending a “service” again after all this time.  In a way, it did feel like that.  I could see familiar faces from security to venue staff.  Even people in the crowd were recognizable.  It was a great reunion.  

Lucinda Williams

Photo Credit: Kevin Rolfe

Talk about a happy reunion.  As I walked to the front of the stage to take my photos of Ms. Williams, I saw pure joy in the faces of the fans near me.  In November 2020, Lucinda Williams, unfortunately, suffered a stroke.  When something like that happens you just never know how a person is going to come out of that.  Obviously, the most important thing is for the individual to be healthy and have a good quality of life.  But I’m sure Williams and her fans wondered if she’d be able to sing, play guitar, or perform again.  So seeing her on that stage was a special answer to that question.  With some assistance, Lucinda Williams made her way to center stage and sat on a chair. 

Lucinda expressed how happy she was to be at the show.  She told us that she still wasn’t able to play guitar, but that she could sing.  The audience cheered their approval that her voice had returned to her.  These are the moments that make live music so special. To see such an icon make her return to the stage after a health scare like that is a powerful thing to get to see.  

Photo Credit: Kevin Rolfe

Lucinda Williams appropriately opened her set with “Are You Alright?”. The lyrics seemed to take on a different meaning.  “Are you alright? All of a sudden you went away.  Are you alright? I hope you come back around someday.”  We were really glad to have you back around, Lucinda.  The smiles and the cheers from the audience seemed to lift Williams’ spirits.  Lucinda was back, Red Butte was back, Jason Isbell was in town.  It was a great day to be in Utah.  

One of the first I noticed from Lucinda Williams’ set was how excellent her band was.  Williams at one point in the show said, “Give it up for my kick ass band!”.  It didn’t take much prodding for the crowd to acknowledge how talented the four men backing Lucinda were.  

Williams’ ten song set included a mix of favorites, covers, and a new song I particularly liked, “Big Black Train”.   She did not disappoint with classic songs like, “Can’t Let Go” and “Drunken Angel”.  As the set went along, Lucinda eventually rose from her chair.  There was a feeling of excitement as she stood up and performed with growing power.  The climax of it all came during her almost ten minute delivery of “Joy”.  The force and strength that she performed that song with was to be admired.

Lucinda William’s set concluded with a cover of the great Al Green song “Take Me To the River.”  People were dancing and singing and really enjoying themselves. Lucinda would smile as she watched the audience.  When the set was over she told the audience that this was a special show for her.  She mentioned that she had just gotten out of rehab.  She quickly stated, “Not that kind of rehab!”  She’s been going to physical rehabilitation for the issues related to her stroke.  The crowd roared when she told us, “I’m too mean to die.”.  It felt good to be part of her return to the stage.  It was a special moment for us too. 

Ticket Scams

In between sets, I walked out by the box office to say hi to some people and to reset my camera.  I noticed several people whose tickets didn’t work at the gate and made their way to the box office to have someone looking into the problem.  More times than not, these people ended up leaving the Red Butte Garden very upset. I decided to walk up and ask the box office folks what was going on. 

It turned out that people were buying tickets off the second-hand market.  Someone would sell multiple people the same tickets.  So whoever got in first was fine, but the next person saw screwed because it showed that the ticket had been scanned.  Because this ticket wasn’t purchased through Red Butte, there wasn’t really anything they could do about it.  I could tell the staff felt bad about it and I know I felt awful for the people who believed they were minutes away from seeing one of their favorite artists.  

I’m not sure how to figure out if this has happened to you.  I understand that when a show is sold out you’re going to look for an alternative way to get a ticket.  So I’ll just say, be careful.  I don’t know what that means because I don’t know if there’s a way to check the validity of your ticket beforehand.  But I hope this never happens to you.  

And for those who run this kind of scam, shame on you.  What a pathetic way to make a buck.  Come to your senses and be better.  You know what you’re doing, you know how disappointed someone is going to be, and you know it’s not cool.  So stop it. 

Sensory Bags

As I made my way down to the stage to take photos of Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, I quickly stopped by the merch tent.  There was a brief window where no one was there and I walked right up to buy a shirt.  While I was there I noticed “Sensory Inclusive Bags”.  I asked the merch girl what those were.  She was so kind and informed.  She shared with me that this was the first tour to provide bags for those who might have sensory issues.  The bag included noise canceling headphones, multiple fidgets, and ID cards that not only let people know that you have sensory issues, but also diagrams at what level of anxiety you might be experiencing at the moment.  

What an awesome idea.  According to a post about this on Jason’s Instagram, it states that “1 in 4 individuals in the USA has an invisible disability or sensory need.”.  I have people in my life with sensory issues and this bag would be perfect for them.  Jason Isbell has partnered with KultureCity to provide these bags free of charge on his tour.  This is a genius idea and a great way to include so many people who otherwise wouldn’t enjoy the live music experience as much as they could.  

To get more information on these Sensory Inclusive Bags, go to kulturecity.com

Jason Isbell

Photo Credit: Kevin Rolfe

It was a muggy night at least as far as Utah goes.  There was quite a bit of rain the previous night and seemed to get more and more and more humid as the day went along.  It was almost as if there was a plan to make the weather as humid as possible right before Jason Isbell took the stage.  It’s as if Utah wanted him to feel at home in a more southern climate.  I’m sure for him it was still very dry.  But for Utahns, we might as well have been in Muscle Shoals. 

Isbell took the stage and it was clear to me he was happy to be in front of a live audience as we were to have him there.  He opened with “It Gets Easier” from his latest album, Reunions.  Jason told us he released the album in the middle of 2020 and found it interesting that he titled it Reunions.  He stated after a year like that we all need “reunions”.  That’s exactly what this concert was.  A reunion with Red Butte Garden, a reunion with a live audience, and especially a joyous reunion with Jason Isbell.

I love the opportunity of being up close to shoot photos. Of course, the taking of photos is rewarding enough, but one aspect I really love is being so close that I get to watch the band interact. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit are a tight-knit band. I love watching the subtle nods, or the close admiration when a band member is featured in a song. I enjoying watching a band member crack a smile about something that is only funny within the band. It’s totally on the inside!

I’m right there up front and I can’t tell what they were laughing about. Maybe it was a flub no one but them picked up on. Perhaps it was an inside joke they were reminded of from the tour bus. I sometimes wonder if they’re all noticing a goofy fan, or pointing out the crazy photographer who’s gazing at all that’s going on instead of remembering he only has two songs to take photos! In this case, there was a moment where I felt like the 400 Unit were looking at each other, with Jason and simply excited to be back on a stage in front of a live audience.

As for the 400 Unit. What an exceptional band. With a powerhouse leading the group like Jason Isbell, a band like this can be faceless and nameless. They may even prefer that. But I have to mention them by name because I found each one of them to be so talented, so engaged in the music, and so stylized in their sound.

Sadler Vaden on guitar, Jimbo Hart on bass, Derry DeBorja on keys, and Chad Gamble on drums. They’re an incredible lineup and I was totally blown away by their instrumentation on these great songs.

Photo Credit: Kevin Rolfe

When I thought back on the concert later that night I realized that Jason didn’t talk a whole lot during his concert. I guess it surprised me because I felt like there was a lot of communication between him and the audience. It dawned on me that it’s all in the music, in his lyrics. He’s telling us stories and sharing messages in a way that feels like we’ve just had a two hour conversation. Some of Isbell’s lyrics are so specific and personal that it’s surprising that they can be internalized by the fans. But as a fan myself, I found myself in the position of the songwriter’s point of view.

Photo Credit: Kevin Rolfe

Songs like “Elephant” or “If We Were Vampires” pierced through and hit home. “Last of My Kind” felt relatable and ironically community forming. I felt like I went back and forth as either the person being spoken to or the person speaking in ” The Life You Chose”. The line, “Last Year Was a Son of a Bitch” from “Hope the High Road” received a pointed cheer from the audience. Because of what went on last year, the line took on a new meaning. When people heard it, they had to vocalize their agreement with that sentiment.

I think one of my all-time favorite parts of any concert I’ve been to is when Jason sings, “But I sobered up. I swore off that stuff. Forever this time” in the crowd favorite, “Cover Me Up”. He sings those lyrics and the audience goes crazy. That has to be the most amazing kind of encouragement one could get. I suppose it just makes me so happy because everywhere he goes, every time he sings that song, people are cheering that loudly and are that encouraging and supportive of making those difficult choices. Besides, that song is amazing from top to bottom.

There were messages and personal conversations for each person in that sold-out show. That’s a tribute to the songwriter’s ability to connect with his audience. I saw smiles and tears and swaying. People were having an experience, and Isbell was bringing us through it.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like Jason Isbell just played through his songs and didn’t say anything. Isbell told us that he brought his dad with him, he talked about the new album. He spoke effusively about Lucinda Williams. He shared with us that few artists have moved him like Lucinda. The Crowd loved it when he said, “What a beautiful night. What a beautiful place.” We like hearing that.

Isbell told us he had just a couple more songs if there was time. Red Butte Garden has a 10:30 curfew and Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit were cutting it close. He mentioned that he didn’t want to have to call Salt Lake City Mayor, Erin Mendenhall. The audience laughed.

Photo Credit: Kevin Rolfe

The night ended with a rousing performance of “Super 8”. The band sounded incredible, and the audience was in peak form. I think they knew it was the last song, and being their first show in a long time, they wanted to leave everything they had inside the garden. I looked at everyone around me and the way they were reacting to this song and I had to remind myself where I was. For a moment I felt like I was in a Honky Tonk in Nashville.

It felt so good to be back at Red Butte. I loved being around a crowd. Truth be told, there was some trepidation being around so many people. But I just wanted to trust that everyone had been safe, vaccinated, and feeling healthy. It was so great to see Jason Isbell live again. He was the perfect artist to bring this concert series back.

For information on upcoming shows at Red Butte Garden, or to purchase tickets, go to redbuttegarden.org

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