Jason Isbell

Jason Isbell


It’s an early start at The Ritz tonight. Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit, to give the evening’s main act its full name, is working to a 10pm curfew to allow time for the venue to put on its Light Boxx club night afterwards. Appearing in front of us with his four band mates ready to play, Isbell wishes us all a great show and tells us that the band is from the Muscle Shoals, Alabama area for the most part. Like Memphis, Nashville and other famous towns and cities in the South, Muscle Shoals is perhaps most renowned for its musical significance: credited with its own “Sound” in the 1960s, it later attracted The Rolling Stones to record there for Sticky Fingers, and it’s where celebrated albums like Slow Train Coming and Rhymin’ Simon were recorded by Bob Dylan and Paul Simon respectively.

It’s little wonder that kids growing up in these places are inspired to become musicians, and Isbell’s music is to a large extent rooted in the traditions of the South. Since his wilder days as guitarist and vocalist in Drive-By Truckers, Isbell has got sober, rehabilitated and settled down, and that’s all to the great benefit of music fans if his last two solo records in particular are anything to go by. Because of his songwriting, which can be deeply personal, and his openness in interviews, with Isbell I have taken far more interest in the person behind the music than I usually do. He seems to be an intelligent and liberal Southern gentleman. The set has started with a couple of my favourite songs, but next up is significant as the ode to gratitude and title song from last year’s Something More Than Free album. The lyrics are non-specific, but I interpret them as a reflection of a happy and thankful man.

The set is becoming one in which Isbell alternates regularly between acoustic and electric guitar. The inclusion of Sadler Vaden on electric guitar creates the overall guitar-heavy sound, but Derry DeBorja (ex-Son Volt) on keyboards and accordion adds countermelodies and textures. The rhythm section is Jimbo Hart on bass and Chad Gamble on drums, who is mixing it up with mallet sticks, standard ones and brushes. Most of the songs being played are from the last two critically-acclaimed LPs, but on solo tours or with The 400 Unit, Isbell still plays the majority of the ten or so songs he wrote that appeared on Drive-By Truckers records. ‘Decoration Day’ features Isbell playing the first guitar solo with Vaden taking the second solo, and ‘Outfit’ is introduced as a song he wrote years ago for his dad when he got back from a tour on Father’s Day without any money for a present and so wrote him a song instead.

Received particularly well by this packed crowd is ‘Cover Me Up’, a song Isbell wrote for the wife he recently wed, the musician Amanda Shires, who is not here tonight but surely being missed by band and audience alike because she often plays fiddle and sings with the band. Cheers go up as Isbell sings “I sobered up and I swore off that stuff forever this time”, and he’s visibly touched by the response during and after the song. When it comes, the audience noise to request an encore must be as loud as any I can remember, and the set wraps up with Isbell, Vaden and Hart forming a rock and roll choir as they all sing concurrent lead vocals on ‘Super 8’. And then it’s all over. Three of my favourite songs, ‘To a Band That I Loved’, ‘Live Oak’ and ‘Relatively Easy’, didn’t even get a look-in for inclusion in the set, but what a show! These days Isbell has so many songs vying for a place.

The performance of the Drive-By Truckers songs in the set for me has highlighted how Isbell has really found his own voice since those records were made. The regional accent in his singing voice has faded somewhat now and he takes his vocals to bolder places. Maybe it’s menthol lozenges or more likely his sober lifestyle, but he is singing in a cleaner tone. I’d now put his singing and songwriting on a par with his guitar abilities, and I think it’s this huge talent in all three areas that make Isbell a must-see. Due to a level of popularity that saw last year’s album top three separate Billboard charts in the US, we might well never get to see him play an intimate show in a small venue. It doesn’t really matter. Isbell’s work has found a bigger audience, deservedly so, and it’s worth travelling vast distances to venues of any size to see him perform.

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Steve Jones

Apart from about five years in total, I've always lived in Manchester. Shame about the weather and lack of beach, but I do like it here. My all-time favourite gig would have to be The National at the Academy in about 2010, although I did get Matt Berninger's mic cable wrapped around my neck (that was a close one). My guilty pleasures include the music of Bruce Springsteen, and I also felt a bit bad for feeling such joy at seeing Counting Crows live in the early 2000s. I recommend Lifter Puller, a rather obnoxious and unpleasant-sounding band that I can't seem to get enough of, even though they are long disbanded. Amongst my Silent Radio gigs, I was blown away by John Murry. I'll let you know if anything tops that one.