Jason Isbell at The Boogaloo, London
So…. Jason Isbell, probably the best acoustic solo concert I have seen.
Sadly the Drive-By Truckers sort of passed me by (now rectified) and my introduction to Jason Isbell was via the David Letterman performance of Harlem River Blues by Justin Townes Earle and his work on that album. From there it was a short stretch to seeking out his solo work, now firmly on rotation from my CD collection.
Knowing what a great guitarist he is, and really enjoying his songs and singing on his albums, doesn’t quite prepare you for the tour-de-force that is his solo acoustic outing. This was in a tiny club/bar in North London which was a relic of the 60s/70s but which had a very clear sound system and a lot of atmosphere for the hundred or so punters who were packed in to see him. Kicking off with ‘Tour of Duty’ from the latest album ‘Here we Rest’, Isbell than proceeded for about an hour and forty minutes to give a masterclass in songwriting (with some short anecdotes about some of the songs as an intro), acoustic guitar playing and, to me most surprising of all, singing. His voice is almost like an instrument when he uses the microphone to accentuate the cries of ‘Oh’ during the chorus of Alabama Pines, and it is much more powerful than it had seemed on record. He has an easy and humorous rapport with his audience, too
The audience was rapt, and exceedingly quiet during his songs, as he played through a selection of tracks from the three solo studio albums and a couple from the Drive-By Truckers period, from the afore-mentioned ‘Alabama Pines’ and ‘Tour of Duty’ to ‘Go it alone’, ‘Daisy Mae’ , ‘Save it for Sunday’ and a showstopping ‘Codeine’ from ‘Here we Rest’, to ‘Dress Blues’, ‘Grown’, ‘In a Razor Town’ and ‘The Magician’ from ‘Sirens of the Ditch’, and ‘Cigarettes and Wine’, ‘The Blue’, ‘Streetlights’ from the self-titles album, plus others that I can’t quite recall.
The two standouts for me’ however, were a sublime version of ‘Goddamn Lonely Love’ and a gorgeous interpretation of ‘Danko/Manuel’ that he wrote in honor of members of the Band, a group he claimed as heroes of his and real inspirations for him. He even name-dropped the recently departed Levon Helm.
Isbell has been opening for Ryan Adams in recent weeks (and I am a great Ryan Adams fan) but I guess he does not have the time on stage during those gigs to play such a long and varies selection of his songs, nor possibly did/does he have the intimacy of a little club of patently adoring fans to spur him on. But I can’t believe Ryan Adams was any better than this.
This was an outstanding performance and more like this are likely to project this guy into the top division of singer-songwriters in terms of popularity – to my mind he is already there is terms of ability.