Jason Isbell and John Moreland at 02 Forum, London, UK
Both John Moreland’s High on Tulsa Heat and Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free featured highly among many Americana 2015 album of the year lists, and in my opinion, deservedly so. That made a Moreland opening an Isbell show a mouth-watering prospect so early in the New Year. While listening to both records last year I wondered first, why hadn’t I come across Moreland and could Isbell repeat or exceed his excellent 2013 release, Southeastern? I can’t answer the first question except must try harder and to the second, an unqualified yes.
The venue felt full just before John Moreland took the stage which I took to be a good sign of interest and support. That seemed a reasonable assumption based on the welcome he got and applause he received. Having expected High on Tulsa Heat to dominate, there were only two songs from it; Hang Me in The Tulsa County Stars and You Don’t Care for Me Enough to Cry with his previous record, In the Throes, providing much of the rest. That didn’t matter; as regardless of source, Moreland accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, sings with an emotion and feeling that seem to draw on a life far longer than his 30 years. While his influences are Steve Earle, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, this is his own material, played and sung in his own style. In his last but one; Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore Moreland makes as convincing a case as I have heard why songs should matter. He may have been the guy singing away in the corner of the bar room but he’s on the big stage now and I look forward to a return headlining his own show.
Jason Isbell’s career from the Drive-By Truckers to his current solo status has been well-chronicled. He is making great records and has created a powerful antidote to the saccharine sounds of chart country with songs that are stories about real struggle, tragedy and just keeping on keeping on (to misquote another fine southerner, Stephen Stills).
Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, appeared bang on time. A polite introduction; “I’m Jason Isbell from Muscle Shoals, Alabama” (in case anyone needed reminding) adding his pleasure at returning to London then straight into Palmetto Rose. Here was a man keen to perform his art and with an easy charm between songs gave a show that demonstrated the path of his music from DBT days. Much of the material came from Something More Than Free and Southeastern with some older compositions such as Alabama Pines and Tour of Duty. Backed by the superb 400 Unit, Isbell demonstrated his ease at switching between hard rockers that harked back to DBT days to ballads that were pure poetry. The two final tracks of the main set demonstrated that perfectly; Never Gonna Change to Children of Children.
Picking out highlights is almost pointless; the show was consistently brilliant; Stockholm, Travelling Alone, Outfit always do it for me but so does The Life You Choose, Cover Me Up and 24 Frames. You get the picture. Blending the poignant and rocking defined the encores of Elephant and Codeine.
Two final thoughts; one is the band. This is no backing band but a group of top musicians who know exactly when they and Isbell are as one and when it is him alone. Throughout the show you are aware of Isbell pacing around them. They are truly a unit. The second is about Isbell; you cannot help but be struck by his humility. He makes clear his gratitude for a full house (our pleasure). He is also very funny; about sleeping on a futon in bassist Jimbo Hart’s apartment and his observation from watching an Oasis show on the tour bus how Brit bands like to announce the title of the next song, suggesting that next time over here he might wear a ski jacket.
There is no joking about the standard of songs and performance. This was first class. Combining the two sets, if there is anyone who struggles to define “Americana” then go straight to Jason Isbell and John Moreland.