The resplendent setting of a former Methodist hall in central Manchester was a suitable venue to welcome Jason Isbell back to these shores and an expectant congregation of devotees were not disappointed by an evening that showcased perfectly the strengths of one of America’s finest artists and his excellent band.
The Nashville Sound, released in the summer, featured prominently in the set alongside 2015’s Something More Than Free with set opener, Hope The High Road, setting an optimistic tone for what proved to be an uplifting evening. The sound quality was impeccable and meant that every word of every song could be heard with crystal clarity which is always an advantage when the subject matter of the Isbell songbook is considered. Therefore, the unsettling truths of White Man’s World, the imagery of 24 Frames and the dark tones of Anxiety become even more hard-hitting as a result. The strength of Jason Isbell’s song writing is his ability to take contemporary issues that affect many and place them in characters and stories, often anchored in his Southern homeland. So when he sings of disillusionment in the thunderous Cumberland Gap or the harsh realities of manual labour in Something More Than Free, the themes are universal and that goes some way to explaining why he’s packing out this venue tonight and why the crowd are with him every step of the way.
The Drive By Truckers classic Decoration Day is one of only two older tracks aired tonight, featuring guitar breaks from both Isbell and the superb Sadler Vaden, with the rest of the set being from Southeastern onwards. Tunes like Molotov and Tupelo from The Nashville Sound are edgy yet irresistible sing-alongs while Last of My Kind, performed here with only the minimal backing, is as effecting as any song Jason Isbell has written. It is also testament to his power of performance that he is able to hold the entire crowd in thrall during the acoustic moments such as Speed Trap Town and the stunning Cover Me Up. Dedicating it to wife Amanda, Isbell jokes that it has been likened to Norwegian Wood, yet the arrangement tonight, with Chad Gamble providing some well-timed rolls on the toms place it in a category of its own.
The 400 Unit have been likened to The E Street Band, The Nashville Sound being the first joint credit album since 2011’s Here We Rest, and seeing them perform tonight is to see a band at the top of their game. Gamble and Jimbo Hart are as strong as any rhythm section going, Derry deBorja is outstanding on keys while watching Sadler Vaden and Isbell exchanging riffs like two rutting stags, as they do on set closer Never Gonna Change, is enough to give any guitar fan wet dreams for months.
A rousing reception saw the band return to the stage to deliver two contrasting encores. Firstly, the haunting If We Were Vampires delivered to a hushed crowd, followed by a storming tribute to the late Tom Petty in Refugee, saw the crowd leave in good heart. An outstanding performance from a special talent.