Jason Isbell last played in the United Kingdom in 2012 when he was here supporting Ryan Adams. It has been well documented that he was then not long out of rehab after years of alcohol and cocaine abuse. Much has happened to Isbell in the interim. He has stayed clean, married fellow musician and songwriter, Amanda Shires and released his most critically acclaimed record to date, last year’s release, the rather sumptuous Southeastern.
Backed by the magnificent 400 Unit – guitarist Sadler Vaden, Derry deBorja on keyboards and accordion and a most formidable rhythm section of Jimbo Hart and Chad Gamble on bass and drums respectively – Jason Isbell launches straight into ‘Stockholm’ before signing off more than two hours later with his second encore ‘Super 8’. Both songs taken from Southeastern also mark the distance Isbell has travelled over the last couple of years; how much his life has changed since he moved out of his self-inflicted darkness and into the light.
Laced with regret and life re-affirmation, Southeastern is Jason Isbell’s personal catharsis and one from which he draws heavily this evening. Excellent as the recording is, it is not until it moves into the live domain that it properly comes alive. This is due primarily to the presence of the 400 Unit who do not perform on the album. On stage their combined muscle brings added heft, grit and urgency to the party and in so doing instil in Isbell an even greater belief in his abilities.
On ‘Cover Me Up’ – the opening song from Southeastern – Isbell digs deep into an emotional well, dragging from it a vocal tour-de-force which surely draws comparisons with both John Prine and Steve Earle in their prime. Earlier there were also undoubted similarities between him and Tunnel of Love period Bruce Springsteen on the stark revelation that is ‘Live Oak’. And later he is joined on stage by Erin McKeown for the grievous lament that is ‘Travelling Alone’, the tour’s support act reprising the vocal part taken by Isbell’s wife on the album.
Jason Isbell’s earlier career is dominated by his association with Drive-By Truckers from 2001 until 2007. Some of his most significant contributions to that band during this period are represented here tonight by ‘Goddamn Lonely Love’ – a lonesome roadhouse blues with some astonishing bottleneck slide guitar courtesy of both Isbell and Vaden – the powerful ‘Decoration Day’, again with more than a nod to Springsteen; the glorious reflection upon his Southern roots that is ‘Outfit’; and the initial encore and heartfelt paean to his two favourite Canadians, ‘Danko/Manuel’. All proof positive that he is surely living now like he should.
Jason Isbell’s heart may well be in country but this was the epitome of a true rock n roll show. It had sold out weeks in advance and on what was the warmest day of the the year so far, the main concert room of the Brudenell had become a heaving mass of heat, sweat and undiluted happiness. Nights like this linger long in the memory.