John Bartus

Last weekend, I had the privilege of attending my third Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit concert. I mentioned Isbell and his band in a previous column from 2021; since then, he has released a couple more albums and has toured regularly since the pandemic (hopefully) eased. Unlike the two times I saw him before, Amanda Shires (his enormously talented singer-songwriter-fiddle-playing wife) joined the band for this show.

It was my dream Isbell/400 Unit concert. He played nearly everything I would have written down on my perfect setlist, and simply owned everyone in the room throughout an amazing 19-song set. Instead of going on about the specifics of the concert — songs played, sound quality, etc. — I want to take a moment and reflect on something that was brilliantly subtle yet blatantly obvious to the more-than-casual music lover.


Synergy is that amazing thing that happens in the best musical performances and recordings. The Oxford Dictionary defines synergy as, “the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.” Musically, it’s the way each musician exercises their craft while contributing to the group effort to produce a magnificent sound.

The Beatles had synergy in spades. U2 is another band that has it. Jazz groups and rock bands alike rely on musical synergy for a good performance, with a player’s improvisations — and the other band members’ responses and reactions — taking the music to new and wonderful places.

Watching the 400 Unit is a master class in musical synergy. Many of the arrangements are solid and the same from show to show, but the interactions between the band members during the improvised instrumental portions of the songs are really breathtaking. Isbell plays acoustic guitar and sings during “Last of My Kind” (a great song from The Nashville Sound album), but what lifts the song to the heavens is the interplay between Amanda Shires’ fiddle and Sandler Vaden’s slide guitar as they trade passages that seamlessly move between piano and fortissimo (soft and loud). Isbell hangs out by the backline as the rest of the band crescendos to their climax. The instrumental jams take the song to the highest heights and then eventually come to rest in a smooth soft landing at the end of the song.

It’s a similar situation in “Cover Me Up” (from Southeastern) as Isbell starts the song alone with an acoustic guitar. The band members come back on stage one by one, until they are all playing incredibly intensely, yet with the steadiness of a heartbeat, until the song ends again with just Isbell’s guitar and Shires’ fiddle. 

Watching a band like the 400 Unit makes one appreciate just how good the interplay is between Isbell and Vaden when they jam out on electric guitars during the rocking numbers. But guitarists and fiddle players would be out there alone without an amazing rhythm section — and the 400 Unit’s is stellar. Drummer Chad Gamble and bassist Jimbo Hart hold down the groove and are responsible for a lot of the amazing dynamics, while keyboardist Derry DeBorja adds colors and fills and pads that support the songs perfectly.

All this would be for naught if there weren’t any good songs. I’m not sure Jason Isbell has ever written a bad song, but his good ones are some of the best around. Their concert was a true display of amazing musical synergy that is somewhat rare these days.

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Many readers may remember my column about David Crosby’s For Free album back in May 2022. It was definitely one of my favorite records of last year, and his 80-year-old voice sounded as young and angelic as ever. Sadly, David has left us, and hopefully has found some great players to jam with in heaven. I was fortunate enough to have seen Crosby Stills Nash and Young together twice, and CSN once. I’m really sorry I missed his solo show at the Key West Theater. His old bandmates have offered touching tributes, and the world loses another beautiful talent. As someone posted on Facebook, the angels wanted their voice back. Ironically, Crosby’s last performance on stage was with Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit in February of last year, singing CSNY’s “Ohio” with the band and Shawn Colvin. Rest in Peace, Croz.

Very few towns or cities could ever claim that their Mayor was a smokin' hot guitar player. The island city of Marathon in the Florida Keys is one of those towns. While politics is a temporary call to service, music is a life sentence. John Bartus, a more-than-four-decade full-time professional musician, singer, and songwriter, continues to raise the bar with his groundbreaking solo acoustic show. It’s easy to catch John on one of his more than 200 shows a year throughout the Keys on his Perpetual Island Tour. His CD releases include After The Storm, Keys Disease 10th Anniversary Remaster, and Live From the Florida Keys Vol. 2. John’s music is available wherever you download or stream your music.