Music review: Jason Isbell, St Pancras Old Church, London
Thursday 29 August 2013
In country music, if daddy ain't a no-good son of a gun, then he invariably often acts as a font of wisdom, a tradition carried on enthusiastically by this Muscle Shoals, Alabama, native, who peppers his ballads with Pop's pithy saws. Indeed, not long after we hear about a young Jason Isbell being taught 'The right things's always the hardest thing to do' in "Different Days", then the solo artist performs a number built entirely on paternal apercus.
A personal favourite from "Outfit" warns him against changing his accent, “'cause a southern man tells better jokes”, suggesting Isbell senior plays up to the Dixie stereotype, yet the singer relates such tales with warmth and filial pride. That number actually comes from his stint as a member of Drive-By Truckers, the feted alt-country outfit that generally took a more askance look at southern US tropes, though Isbell has since 2007 travelled in a more earnest direction.
We now find him on the verge of greater success with his fourth album, Southeastern, due for UK release in October. It features some of his most immediate work to date, partly because it coincides with a battle versus alcohol abuse and redemption via marriage. Tonight, the bulky Isbell looks a picture of health as he plays for two whole hours. Strumming his acoustic with nimble grace, the easy-going singer recreates the luminous arrangements of the album's standout tracks, the poppy "Travelling Alone" and "Stockholm".
He lowers his fine, clear tones to a whisper for the confessional "Elephant" that mourns the passing of a cancer patient, well suited to this underlit church, and raises a pained yell for the vulnerable cry for help that is "Cover Me Up". All the while, Isbell avoids the pitfall for those that conquer such demons as addiction: they often prove tiresome as they fail to recognise what excess was enticing in the first place. Instead he delves into his back catalogue, picking out a number about hiding his car while sober to prevent him from from drunk driving.
The tactic works so well he thinks it was nicked. “So I phone the cops.. they find it in nine minutes,” he recounts laconically. While charming company, the set drifts over the final half hour as Isbell finds himself covering musically similar ground. Without a foil on stage, you note he lacks the mercurial presence of a Ryan Adams, though with greater recognition, Isbell won't have to continue working alone.
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