26th October 2017
Glasgow O2 Academy
I did begin to wonder if Jason Isbell would ever succeed in emerging from the shadow of Southeastern, his post-rehab breakthrough 2013 masterpiece. 2015’s Something More Than Free, although a huge success from the point of view of units shifted, I felt was a patchy affair with Isbell himself perhaps a touch unsure of where to go to next. Thankfully he appears to have re-found the High Road on his new release The Nashville Sound.
The collection opens with a trio of his first person character portraits: a country boy lost in the impersonal big city, an alcoholic ex-miner propping up the bar in the local Mustang Lounge and a divorcee promising to look up an old flame, but realising he probably never will.
Isbell’s deft pen brings this trio of characters to life wonderfully, but what makes his portraits all the more focussed is the three markedly divergent music styles used to do so. Last of My Kind is a stripped-bare folk tune, Cumberland Gap, by contrast, is probably as fine a piece of three-minute rock and roll as I have heard for some time, whilst Tupelo represents quality C&W straight from the Grand Ole Opry. That Isbell and his band are able to effortlessly stride these genres is a testament to the musicians’ seemingly seamless mastery of their art.
Not all the songs are observational; as the writer touches upon his own domestic situation in both White Man’s World and If We Were Vampires. This last named is probably the album’s highlight - a beautifully restrained love song to his wife Amanda Shires, and as painfully honest as Southeastern’s Cover Me Up.
I cannot imagine what Amanda’s reaction was when she first heard the song played to her, with its lines:
“It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever.
Likely one of us will have to spend some time alone
Maybe we’ll get forty years together
But one day I’ll be gone
or one day you’ll be gone”
Out of context these lines do, I admit, appear a touch gauche, but listen to the song. And weep.
But the album is not all grim, for as on Southeastern, Isbell rounds things off with an upbeat message; in this case Something to Love. It’s an uplifting song of hope and optimism - even if the chorus at times feels like something from a US TV evangelist show, producing the mental image of a row of shiny-faced saved-souls grinning away whilst singing it.
The only tune on the album which does not quite hit the mark, in my opinion, is the lengthy Anxiety, which sits plumb in the middle of the collection. It is the heaviest composition in the set - which is fine by me - but it the lyric which just jars. For the lines contain little of Isbell’s subtlety and wit.
I am well aware that anxiety (the condition, not the song) can have a seriously debilitating effect upon any sufferer, but this track just sounds so…well… whiny and self-pitying. The fact Mrs. Isbell was given a co-writing credit on this one may or may not be (ahem) significant.
|Glasgow O2 Academy|
|Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit - Glasgow 2017|
|Vaden and Isbell doing their Never Gonna Change duet.|
|Sadler Vaden, Jimbo Hart & Jason Isbell.|
This stop on a short UK tour was shifted from Glasgow’s O2 ABC to the larger O2 Academy, pretty much within days of the tickets going on sale – always a good sign. And Isbell was clearly confident enough in the new album to play eight of the ten songs from it. Perhaps significantly, only two from the last one made the grade.
This is the third time I have seen The 400 Unit in just under two years, with the band sounder tighter on each occasion. No Codeine this time around regretfully, but Stockholm just about made up. The one real surprise was Super 8, which has undergone a bit of a face-lift and evolved from a slightly messy thrash, to a really rather danceable Stones-influenced rocker. Isbell used it to close out his main set this evening, encoring with Tom Petty’s You Got Lucky in tribute to the recently departed Wilbury.
Hope the High Road
White Man’s World
Something More Than Free
Last of My Kind
If We Were Vampires
Flying Over Water
Cover Me Up
You Got Lucky
Never Gonna Change
|Tift Merritt - Glasgow, October 2017|
A lady with the unusual name of Tift Merritt was the support act. She opened her performance with a couple of songs on acoustic guitar, which were pleasantly unthreatening.
But then she strapped on some hefty-looking large-bodied electric geetar, and suddenly the mood changed as she bashed out a brace of significantly more aggressive tunes – Proclamation Bones was one - the crashing chords rattling around the old cinema. With me, and more than a few folks, wondering “Wow. Where did this come from?”
She closed her set with a few more acoustic jobs, and after she departed the stage I was left wondering; “Did that metal interlude really happen, or did I drift off for a few minutes and dream it?”