The Zoo Bar is a small venue in downtown Lincoln, NE that has a fairly legendary reputation as a great blues club. There are several bars that cling to this distinction but The Zoo Bar really plays it up with the word “Blues” in their bar logo actually bigger than the bar name. They also have tons of old black and white blues posters for shows at the venue on the walls as wallpaper on one side of the room. The upper area of the wall is filled with framed and matted black and white pictures of blues icons. These things give the bar a very vintage feel and succeeded in making you feel the history by being in the place.
The layout of the bar is pretty standard, a long skinny room with a bar in front on one side leading to a stage in the back portion of the place. I’m not sure how irregular the Jason Isbell show was for this venue but the place was setup all wrong for a rock show. One side was filled with round tables right up to the stage and the other had small tables and bar stools along the wall with one walkway between then and the round tables.
The venue’s seating was full 2 1/2 hours before Isbell took to the stage; meaning that any additional patrons would be forced to stay in front by the bar (where there was very little room to stand) or get up front and literally stand in front of somebody sitting at a table; of course blocking the person sitting’s view. This almost led to a fight at one point which wasn’t very surprising.
The opening act was Drunken Prayer, a folksey two piece band containing just a singer/ guitarist and a bass player. They would do an admirable job for an opening band and were good to listen to in this environment. They did a few traditional songs like “Ain’t No Grave” and gave their music almost a gospel feel. They would mix in catchy originals like the lovelorn “Brazil” and “Maryjane” as well as the entertaining story song “What Made Me Kill.”
The lead singer could have been a Brian Henneman of the Bottle Rockets vocal clone. At times it was easy to imagine this could have been a solo side project if Drunken Prayer’s singer looked anything like Henneman. Their set was entertaining for about a half hour before the act grew thin. A 40 minute set for the opening act would have been a nice exposure to them. Little did the anxious Sunday crowd know, at 40 minutes the band was only half way through their set. An 80 minute set by an opening band is simply too much. The band’s reception would have been much better if they wouldn’t have overstayed their welcome on stage.
Jason Isbell and his band, The 400 Unit would make a true rock star entrance well before 9:00. They would come straight out of the alley behind the venue to grab their respective instruments and tear into “Go It Alone.” Isbell was unhappy with the sound which could have been amplified by the fact that he and his band are preparing to record a live album soon.
With guitarist Browan Lollar no longer with the band the only founding member behind Isbell is bass player Jimbo Hart who seems to be the backbone of the band. Keyboardist Derry Deborja got a more prominent role in the band’s sound with the absence of Lollar as well. The Unit is rounded out by Chad Gamble on drums who would get a chance to sing lead vocals on a cover of The Meters with “Hey Pocky A-Way.”
Isbell and company would work their way through both their catalog and Isbell’s songs with the Drive-By Truckers to end up with a 19 song, 115 minute set. The songs from his time with the 3 guitar band, the Drive-By Truckers would be the loudest and most rocking of the evening. However, Isbell strength seems to be in slower songs “The Magician” and “In A Razor Town.”
The best song of the evening would prove to be the finest song Isbell has written in “Alabama Pines.” The setlist was largely predictable for any fan of the band. The only surprise would come in the two song encore when they pulled out Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s “American Girl” to cover.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit are always worth going to see. They put on a great show. The most frustrating thing about them is the lack of merchandise they bring with them. They had each of their 3 cds but no vinyl and always seem to be carrying just one or two small shirts, I can think of about 3 Isbell shows where I wanted to buy a shirt and they had no large or extra large sizes.
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit at The Zoo Bar in Lincoln, NE 7/9/12 setlist:
- Go It Alone
- Tour Of Duty
- Decoration Day
- Heart On A String
- Goddamn Lonely Love
- Hey Pocky A-Way (The Meters cover)
- The Magician
- In A Razor Town
- Alabama Pines
- Dress Blues
- Cigarettes and Wine
- Never Gonna Change
- encore break
- American Girl (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers cover)