AUK’s Clint West sees Jason Isbell complete a journey from small venue troubadour to the first modern americana superstar.
On November 25th 2013 Jason Isbell played at Manchester’s Ruby Lounge in support of his newly released album ‘Southeastern’. There were less than 100 people there to witness it. One week short of nine years later he’s back in Manchester to play the cavernous 3500 capacity Apollo Theatre as locals still prefer to call it. He’s been back previously, each time to a progressively larger venue. Indeed, this appearance, originally scheduled for two years ago had to be moved from the 2000 capacity Albert Hall such was the demand for tickets.
Isbell’s meteoric rise in popularity from small venues populated by the kind of americana disciples that typically read this website, to bona-fide crossover rock star is all the more remarkable because he has achieved it by nothing more than writing thoughtful, literate words and incorporating them into beautifully structured songs. For Isbell there has been no makeover, no ‘change of direction’, no radio-friendly production techniques and no marketing gimmicks. Jason Isbell has simply ploughed his own furrow and followed his own line of writing songs with a passion and an honesty that cannot be manufactured. His success is therefore founded on the kind of secure basis that is likely to ensure a lasting appeal. There have been comparisons with Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne, but none of these are really relevant beyond Isbell’s likely longevity, he is very much a unique and original talent.
Providing a great start to the evening were His Lordship, the latest vehicle for the talents of James Walbourne, teaming up this time with Kristoffer Sonne in an explosive three-piece. Those who know Walbourne from his work with The Rails, a folk band that he co-fronts with his wife Kami Thompson (daughter of Richard and Linda Thompson) might be a little surprised by his latest project. Surprise and some bemusement were also the initial reactions of large sections of the Apollo crowd as His Lordship announced themselves by rattling their way through an opening salvo of fast and furious punk-era style rock ‘n’ roll. Walbourne, brimming with energy, cut like a figure spliced together from the genes of Mick Jones and Link Wray. Some locked in straight away, however, it was only when the band went into the guitar introduction of the slower and longer ‘The Repenter’ that more substantial numbers jumped on board. Sonne came down from his drumkit to sing ‘Only Child’ in the most exuberant fashion and Walbourne dedicated an instrumental number to Jerry Lee Lewis. The red-hot performance suitably warmed the crowd, who by the penultimate song, the surf guitar of ‘Cat Call’, were lapping it up and easily persuaded to join in with the chorus of the closing finale ‘I am in Amsterdam’ a song that Walbourne explained was about “taking mushrooms too young”. Some appropriate symmetry there as after some initial caution, His Lordship took the Apollo crowd on a very memorable trip.
Walking onstage in a very understated way Jason Isbell and his 400 Unit band took their place on a stage with a simple but elegant backdrop. With acoustic guitar in hand, he opened with ‘What’ve I Done to Help’ a co-write with Michael Kiwanuka from 2020’s ‘Reunions’, Isbell’s most recent album of new material from which he also played ‘Dreamsicle’, ‘Only Children’, and ‘Running with our Eyes Closed’. ‘Southeastern’, Isbell’s most celebrated album, which topped both the recent AUK writers’ and Readers’ votes for ‘The Top 10 Americana Albums of the 21st Century’ provided five songs in a set that drew from all of Isbell’s six albums back to 2011’s ‘Here We Rest’ represented by ‘Alabama Pines’.
Playing to a large audience Isbell pointedly referenced the time he was booked for a gig in Pennsylvania to which “zero people turned up”. His is no overnight success and he’s worked hard for the recognition he now receives. Isbell is no limelight grabber either. He introduced or thanked each of the 400 Unit at least three times each and stepped back into the shadows frequently during the instrumental breaks in his songs. Guitarist Sadler Vaden was given the opportunity to sing ‘Honeysuckle Blue’ a song that he had written during his time with Atlanta southern rock band Drivin’ n Cryin’ and which featured on Isbell’s ‘Georgia Blue’ covers album released last year. Isbell was also generous in his praise for His Lordship who had opened the show. Isbell’s conversational line in stage chat showed him to be a very grounded and engaging individual who knows exactly how to connect with his audience. Here was a man who, through all his years striving, knew the importance of respecting an audience and not taking them for granted.
For Jason Isbell it seems the songs and the music are the stars and not himself. When he played some of the songs from ‘Southeastern’ I was taken back to that night at The Ruby Lounge nine years earlier and was struck not only by how much had changed for Isbell but also by how little had also changed. When he played ‘Elephant’ with the backing of only his own acoustic guitar and some gentle keyboard it would have been possible to close your eyes and imagine yourself in that, or any other, small venue. That Jason Isbell can recreate that level of intimacy in a large theatre is wholly down to the quality of both his songs and his performance – you don’t go to a Jason Isbell show for special effects or a light show.
Not forgetting his pathway, Isbell played ‘Outfit’ a song that he wrote whilst a member of the Drive-By Truckers and which appeared on their 2003 album ‘Decoration Day’. Some questioned his wisdom in leaving a well-established band to pursue a solo career but although he struggled to get a foothold at first, Isbell always had confidence in his songwriting ability and justifiably so. Having garnered success on the back of his songwriting, Isbell’s is a heartening tale that should give hope and inspiration to all songwriters with the same dream. Isbell remains that same great songwriter that he was 20 years ago only those handful of songs that first brought him to our attention have now been swelled into a large and highly impressive catalogue. Informing the audience that he’d brought his dad across with him for this trip, Isbell also observed that he was now older than his dad was when he wrote ‘Outfit’ which seemed typical of Isbell’s reflective instincts.
Jason Isbell is modern americana’s first superstar. His songs are well known and celebrated. This was reflected in the fact that much of the gig was played out as a big sing-a-long. Yet, take away the familiarity and Isbell has fundamentally changed very little. Take away the size of the venue and the only other clue that Isbell is now operating in a different stratosphere was the regular changing between a number of very nice and expensive guitars – but as a musician above all else, nobody would begrudge him that small extravagance.
After finishing off with ‘Cover Me Up’ Isbell and his band left the stage to tumultuous applause which they milked with a possibly over-long wait (a sign of stardom?) before returning to play ‘If We Were Vampires’ and finally ‘Super 8’. The night was a very special occasion and as Isbell himself remarked “it’s been far too long”. For all the years he’s been doing shows, his creativity and enthusiasm are undiminished, his performance polished to perfection and the genuine pleasure that he took from the evening clearly matched that of his audience. It was uplifting to see so many happy faces exiting into the Manchester night following an americana show. However, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them would take in a more low-profile gig in one of Manchester’s excellent array of small venues? Small shows are struggling right now and without them where will the next Jason Isbell cut his teeth? Americana as a genre needs modern stars to maintain itself as a thriving musical art form, it cannot be a museum piece relying on yesterday’s memories. Jason Isbell, in that respect is a wonderful ambassador but as his own pathway shows, we must also support music at the grass roots if we want it to thrive.
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