Concert Review: Jason Isbell at Knucklehead’s Saloon in Kansas City, MO 9/16/11

Knucklehead’s Saloon is an uncomfortable cowboy bar embedded in a rat’s nest of train tracks in Kansas City. The venue plays host to many big name americana/country/blues acts. This Friday September 16th was Jason Isbell’s turn to take the stage at Knuckleheads.

The venue is one of the more difficult venues to find that I have been to; it seems to meticulously placed in the side of a big hill by a train track and you have to drive through a small seedy looking neighborhood to even see the place. The bar is set up as a “sit down” venue and has several permanent tables for the audience. The ceiling is very low for a venue and it doesn’t look like a typical place to see a show. The sound is good though, if you can get past the foibles of the venue you can see some great music at Knucklehead’s.

The opening act of the night was Sky Smeed, a traditional country type of act from Kansas. Smeed displayed his talents in front of mostly respectful crowd for an opening act and received a strong gathering of applause after each song. Like with most opening acts some members of the audience would be horribly disrespectful and be shouting to their friends no more than 20 feet from the stage but this is to be expected.

Smeed was one of the happiest performers in recent memory for me. He was constantly smiling and seemed genuinely appreciative of the applause. His music was perfect for the cowboy bar. He mixed straight forward country (not Kenny Chesney country, the good kind) with some blues songs and some more upbeat numbers. He was even able to mix in a Townes Van Zant cover. Some very well played lap steel guitar was delivered in heavy doses and Smeed’s set was all the better for it.

A nice feature of Knucklehead’s Saloon is the “Retro-Lounge” A second stage within the venue but not quite within earshot of the main stage. The is where Robbie Vee would display his throwback 50’s style rock and roll. Son of the legendary Bobby Vee, Robbie mixed his fathers songs with other music from that time including Buddy Holly songs. The set wasn’t all covers however, he also sang covers that would have fit right in back in the late 50’s/early 60’s. He had the full look with the slightly over-sized colorful suit, slicked back hair and most importantly fantastic black and white shoes.

The good thing about the Retro-Lounge is that Robbie Vee was playing as soon as Sky Smeed starting gathering his things on stage to make way for the next act. This makes a really nice transition between bands. The best music was yet to come as Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit took the stage at 10pm for a nearly 2 hour set.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit is now sans longtime guitarist Browan Lollar. Instead of replacing him, Jason Isbell just takes control of all leads on guitar parts. Isbell is a great guitarist and is more than up to the challenge. I was a Browan Lollar fan and he was a great guitarist but the 400 Unit didn’t suffer much in his departure.

So now a 4-peice band; Isbell, bass player Jimbo Hart, Keyboardist Derry deBorja and drummer Chad Gamble tore into their set. It started with the solid rocker from their new record Here We Rest “Go It Alone.” Isbell would then do “The Magician” off his first solo album Sirens of the Ditch. A couple songs Isbell wrote with the Drive-By Truckers would follow in “Decoration Day” and “Goddamn Lonely Love,” would follow. He would also mix in “Outfit” and “Danko/Manuel” from his truckers catalog later in the set.

Chad Gamble took lead vocals on “Hey Pocky A-Way” and older song by a band called The Meters, this summoned several members of the audience to get up and dance. That song was sandwiched by two of Isbell’s best songs off his latest album Here We Rest, “Alabama Pines” and “Tour of Duty” both songs are a little slower tempo but are great songs. “Alabama Pines” may be the best song Isbell has written so far. The new album would get a nice sampling played from it. Of the 17 songs played he would mix in a total of 6 songs from the record.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit performing live at Knucklehead's Saloon in Kansas City, MO on 9-16-11.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit performing live at Knucklehead's Saloon in Kansas City, MO on 9-16-11.

After testing the waters with the quieter “In A Razor Town,” Isbell decided the crowd was respectful enough and listening carefully enough to break out a couple of quieter songs. He even took time to thank the crowd for listening. He sent the band off stage then started “Daisy Mae” which turned out to be a show highlight after a couple quick false starts. With the band off-stage Isbell then delighted the audience with a seldom performed song that predates even his days as a Drive-By Trucker, “T.V.A.” The song received a burst of screams after the first line the crowd relished in the performance of the song before Isbell himself would retire from the stage.

The 3 song encore featured “Danko/Manuel” “Codene” and a driving version of the Neil Young classic “Like A Hurricane.” “Codene” required special instrumentation as Jimbo Hart picked up his standup bass and Derry deBorja strapped on his accordion, it was the only song of the night to feature either instrument. “Codene” was pure country gold as Isbell replaced the violin of the studio version with guitar licks to match. The evening would come to a logical conclusion when the blast of distortion that is Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane” ended. The band held true to the haunting song and left the audience counting down the days until the band returns back to the area.

The setlist:

  • Go It Alone
  • The Magician
  • Decoration Day
  • Goddamn Lonely Love
  • Alabama Pines
  • Hey Pocky A-Way (The Meters cover, Chad Gamble on vocals)
  • Tour of Duty
  • Streetlights
  • Try
  • In A Razor Town
  • Heart on a String
  • Outfit
  • Daisy Mae (Isbell solo)
  • TVA (Isbell solo)
  • Danko/Manuel
  • Codene
  • Like A Hurricane (Neil Young cover)
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