Jason Isbell & 400 Unit at Electric Ballroom (London, UK – May 22, 2014)
After seeing two acoustic Jason Isbell concerts over the last two years (one with Amanda Shires), Jason Isbell brought his 400 Unit (without Shires) to the Electric Ballroom in Camden Town for an evening of inspired music. Isbell has a great band, and a very powerful voice, but it is the songs that get you–from the old Drive-By Truckers days of “Goddamn Lonely Love” and “Decoration Day” (awesome guitar solos from Isbell and second lead guitarist Sadler Vaden–where do they find these brilliant young guitarists?) to virtually the whole of Southeastern, his highly regarded album from last year.
The gig kicked off with the band in heavy rocking mood with the twin leads trading licks on “Tour of Duty”, “Flying over Water”, and the aforementioned “Goddamn Lonely Love”. I thought that the bass was a little too high in the mix throughout and, at first, it threatened to overpower the vocals and indeed the guitar leads. But, Jimbo Hart is a really good player and some of the bass lines were striking. About 50 minutes in, Isbell switched to acoustic guitar and the concert took a more rootsy, country feel, as opposed to the Southern rock of the first half. Interesting that Isbell uses only two guitars–one electric and one acoustic–amazing the sounds he can get out of both, especially some scintillating slide.
For me, the second half was up there with the best concerts I’ve seen, with Isbell on acoustic, Sadler Vaden shone with some spectacular guitar breaks and beautiful infills. But, as I said, it was the songs that nailed it–“Different Days”, “Alabama Pines”, “Codeine” (the latter two had the audience singing along with the chorus), “Relatively Easy”, and so on.
Then came the two highlights of the gig: an absolutely awesome version of “Cover Me Up”, which is almost becoming his theme song, where his voice swooped and rose in spectacular fashion. Its sheer power was a thing to behold. And, “Elephant”, with just acoustic guitar and sympathetic piano and keys from Derry de Borja. I saw people in the audience floored by this wonderful song.
Then it was back on with the electric and a great version of “Stockholm” with Kim Richey stepping out to the mike on harmony vocals. “Outfit” is another song which invites audience participation, and it was clear that people were not just there because there was a gig in the locality; these were mostly hardened fans. We were not disappointed. There were two encores, ending with a raucous “Super 8”. We had been privileged to hear more than two hours of great playing and singing in the company of the current star of Americana music.
Isbell seems a busy performer, but I can’t wait for a new album if he continues to deliver songs of this quality. A real treat.