Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit/Tift Merritt at The Roundhouse, London
A bill headlining Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit supported by Tift Merritt is always going to be a delicious prospect, as a sold out Roundhouse would testify. Both have released albums this year that added to their respective acclaimed catalogs.
The general low-key hubbub that often runs throughout the support act was absent tonight, and rightly so. Tift Merritt has a loyal following over here and they were out in force to see her. In an all too short a set that leaned heavily on her latest release, Stitch of the World, what struck me most was the power and versatility of her voice. This was particularly evident having seen her perform in a church a week ago where she matched her surroundings with sensitivity and pitch. Obviously amplified at this far larger venue, Merritt gave the same songs a strength to reach all parts.
Opener “Eastern Light” lost none of its poignancy and it was perhaps a brave choice to start on keys. However, a most unfortunate broken guitar string on her regular acoustic after only the second song, an energetic “Stray Paper,” added spontaneity to the setlist. Reaching for her electric Gibson, Merritt sang “Traveling Alone” with gusto, which went up a notch for “Proclamation Bones.” Merritt is a perfectionist, so dissatisfied with the tuning on her backup acoustic, she returned to the keys to finish with “Another Country.” In a much shortened set, without her main instrument, Merritt lost none of the subtlety that runs throughout her work but boosted her songs with a strength that pleased her many fans and doubtless added some more.
The 400 Unit are well named. They are a unit able to play as one or they slip back to give Isbell prominence. “Hope the High Road” eased band and audience into the show, a perfect choice as it allowed everyone to do their own bit; powerful rhythm from bassist Jimbo Hart and drummer Chad Gamble, Derry Djorba’s keys, and some introductory licks from Sadler Vaden. Immediately though, what does it for me is Isbell’s lyrics. Though often bleak, he sings with gut-wrenching honesty about aspects of today’s America. In these parts the dream is not always apparent. “White Man’s World” spans the vast inequalities in American society but is not entirely without hope: “I still have faith but I don’t know why, maybe it’s the fire in my little girl’s eyes.” Still, on the new album “Anxiety” turns up the intensity with lyrics to match, “I’m wide awake and in pain.” Like a panic attack the beat palpitates.
Then followed from Something More Than Free “24 Frames,” the title track, and “The Life That You Choose,” and, from Southeastern, “Different Days” and “Traveling Alone,” in which Isbell paid tribute to Tift Merritt’s song of the same name. These brought the pace down to a solo acoustic interlude, allowing Isbell the lyricist to share his thoughts. Tough times, almost desperation, but never shrinking from honesty: “Ten years ago I might have seen you dancing in a different light, and offered up my help in different ways, but those were different days, those were different days.”
“Cumberland Gap” from the new album revved the show right back up. An immense “Stockholm” soon led into “Flying Over Water,” then with a respite for “Cover Me Up,” the set finished with where Isbell came from: two Drive-By Truckers classics, “Outfit” and “Never Gonna Change.” The 400 Unit was out on the highway and unstoppable. Vader let rip both solo and dueling with Isbell.
Since these two songs often feature as encores, what would come next? Perhaps fittingly on the night before Halloween, the haunting “If We Were Vampires” and an exquisite tribute to Tom Petty, “American Girl.” His is a huge loss but hearing this, and for that matter this whole show, it is reassuring to have Jason Isbell. Through his songs he holds up a mirror to life in the raw; he is a man for our times.