Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Tuesday 31st October 2017

Jason Isbell is currently on the sort of hot streak that would be the envy of a sports team anywhere in the world, akin to the domineering days of his beloved Braves. His song writing, album making and performing skills are firmly planted on a plateau, peering down into the distance of the chasing pack. All these attributes are in stark evidence when he takes to the stage, and shows like what we witnessed in Birmingham this evening veer very much towards defining where this artist stands in 2017. This was a gilt-edged artisan on top of his game and a supporting cast in the 400 Unit matching him each note, chord and interlude.

Of course, it has not been all plain sailing for Jason, but adversity and genius often go hand in hand. In addition, contrasting views are held on the differences between polished perfection and good old dirty rock ‘n’ roll. Although it has been a while since Jason dabbled in the latter, you feel that it will be always be part of his DNA, and the sidestep from the plush surroundings of the Symphony Hall to your grittier institutions is a mere small movement of intent. However, with a new record regally titled THE NASHVILLE SOUND and on the back of six sold out shows at the Ryman Auditorium, he is perfectly at home in the sort of environment that greeted him this evening.

The new album took centre stage in a set list that has revolved around an extensive core during this latest run of UK dates. This stretched back to Jason’s formative years as a member of the Southern alt-rock band Drive By Truckers. Many long term fans could make a compelling case for ‘Decoration Day’ and ‘Never Gonna Change’ being the outstanding moments; the former displaying its imperious anthem qualities, while the latter forming the ideal scintillating closer complete with ultra-rock style guitar duals. Whenever the services of the 400 Unit are called upon to either record or perform with Jason Isbell, they know instinctively what to do to project each song at its best. Having returned to the title credits for the latest album, the quartet of Sadler Vader (lead guitar), Jimbo Hart (bass guitar), Chad Gamble (drums) and Derry deBorja (keyboards) brought specific life to the new songs especially the rockers like ‘Hope the High Road’ and ‘Cumberland Gap’.

Just as positioned on the album, the last song mentioned was followed in the running order by ‘Tupelo’ Lyrically they perfectly complement each other in the perception, sentiment and feeling; sonically they display the versatility of Jason treading the fine line between the hard and soft rocker. The song from the new album that soared immensely tonight was ‘Last of My Kind’. It slowed things down at an opportune moment, allowed Jason to inject greater personal feelings into his vocals and showcase how his writing gravitates to another level when the inspiration cuts deep.

This last point seamlessly moves onto the incredibly moving versions of ‘Elephant’ and ‘Cover Me Up’ that had the impact to tear away at the heart of a pin drop audience sitting comfortably in their upholstered seats. The masses who framed these moments as their highlight would struggle to attract too many adversaries. They resonate as prime examples of why a sizable chunk of the Jason Isbell fan base consider 2013’s SOUTH EASTERN to be his finest work, coupled with the context.

In the year that Jason Isbell acquired a CMA nomination (probably more a case of the latter reaching out than the artist churning out a country record), we were served a helping of ‘If It Takes a Lifetime’ from his 2015 album SOMETHING MORE THAN FREE. While that remains his most recent boldest step in the direction of a straight up country song, it retains a certain charm and reasonably represented the wares of this album alongside the title track and the additionally excellent ’24 Frames’.

For those fans who like to hark back to the post-Truckers/pre-SOUTH EASTERN days, ‘Codeine’ and ‘Alabama Pines’ would have neatly fitted the bill. With this show being at least Jason’s first visit to the ‘proper’ Birmingham since he broke into the world of the solo artist, there is still a remaining hope that he will one day play ‘Cigarettes and Wine’ in a live setting once again.

A sly prior look at the tour’s set lists suggested that a Tom Petty song was likely to feature in the finale and Birmingham had the treat of ‘Refugee’ as the night’s final encore song. This was probably the hardest the band rocked all night and ensured an audience did not sink back into their seats after greeting the main set closer with the inevitable standing ovation. The added good news was that the set time well-exceeded my ninety-minute benchmark that had risen as an issue a few days earlier with another gig. This was probably never going to refer to Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. 

There is a tendency for high quality American touring artists to select their opening acts from a similar gene pool. Tift Merritt was a good choice for these UK shows as she shares the rare talent of exceptional song writing skills with the headliner. Her own solo recording career stretches back a little further than Jason’s, and each time she arrives over here for some kind of show, the breadth of her talent is instantly recognisable. In this evening’s packed thirty-minute support slot, she flittered between acoustic guitar, electric guitar and piano. She sung the title track off two albums from her expanding back catalogue – STITCH OF THE WORLD and TRAVELING ALONE , and two excellent songs from other releases including‘Feel the World’ (a personalised sentimental version this evening) and her signature song ‘Good Hearted Man’. This was Tift’s second appearance on the Symphony Hall stage this year after her inclusion on the Transatlantic Sessions cast.  Moreover, this was the fourth time seeing Tift in Birmingham over the last decade, but all have been frustratingly short sets. The opportunity to finally catch this captivating artist in a full show will surely come to the fore one day.

Anticipation had been high for finally seeing a Jason Isbell show in Birmingham since the tickets went on sales months ago. From the moment he strolled onto the stage to greet the audience with the superb ‘Anxiety’ there was to be no looking back. If this artist accrues a lot more column inches than his peers do, it is probably due to the sheer amount of thought provoking issues that emanate from his music. Even regarding this show, there is the inconclusive debate about whether the Symphony Hall was the most appropriate venue to get the best out of Jason Isbell, especially if you want to taste and feel the music in addition to just watching and listening. Sonically, the Symphony Hall was pitch-perfect, and at times the band’s attention to detail replicated a home listening environment, complete with all the comforts. Purists will drool, while others may wish to get their hands a little dirtier. This show was geared towards the purist and there is probably no tighter band around today than Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit.

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