London roots music fans could be forgiven for cursing the calendar gods last night; this early in the year, who would have foreseen simultaneous visits to this shore from Lucinda Williams, The Milk Carton Kids and Jason Isbell, not forgetting Isbell’s notably up-and-coming guest, John Moreland? Following a blistering hour and 45 minutes, hindsight (that wonderfully irrelevant conversation starter) might suggest that the choice wasn’t difficult at all.
There’s a confidence in Isbell’s stance in front of the microphone, his comfortable stagecraft and interaction with members of the 400 Unit, his ability to conjure self-deprecating family stories that belie the huge depths woven into the lyrics. He is constantly ‘on’, always engaged, firing off bandmates, the crowd response and his own playing, clearly happy and happy to be here. The 400 Unit (the impossibly young-looking Sadler Vaden – Guitar, Jimbo Hart, the best dressed bass guitarist this side of Phil Lynott, Chad Gamble – Drums and Derry DeBorja – Keys) play as one throughout, enjoying regular opportunities to extend songs with often furiously intense jams that elevate and solidify the Country-Rock leanings of Isbell’s last two albums; more Crazy Horse than Harvest.
It’s epic from the start. DeBorja’s keys on the coda to ‘Palmetto Rose’ fill the Forum and ‘Decoration Day’ hurtles along at pace. Isabel sings the opening couplet to ‘Tour Of Duty’ like it happened 24 hours earlier – ‘I’m arrivin’ on the days last train / Steppin’ on the platform tryin’ to see you through the rain / I don’t know the ways you’ve changed since I left / And I really don’t care..‘
The set pivots on Isbell’s love letter to Amanda Shires, ‘Cover Me Up’, which proves how a relatively simple acoustic riff can pack a punch like an angry boxer, the band spiralling up through the gears on the back of Gamble’s thumping floor tom to create a monster fit for the brutally honest words – ‘Put your faith to the test when I tore off your dress in Richmond on high / But I sobered up and I swore off that stuff, forever this time‘. Around it, ’24 Frames’ induces a mass sing-along and ‘If It Takes A Lifetime’ allows for the intensity to drop, albeit only for a moment. The end of the set is a glorious, full-on rock concert, from the balladic beauty of highway song ‘Speed Trap Town’ to the fury and fire of ‘Never Gonna Change’ and the lofty aesthetics of Something More Than Free’s best track, ‘Children Of Children’, which more than any tonight echoes the artistry of early 70s Neil Young.
By the time DeBorja and Isbell return for an elegiac ‘Elephant’ the energy in the room would power the particle accelerator at CERN. One last turn for the full band on ‘Codeine’, a standing ovation and the lights go up on a beautifully paced, staggeringly well-executed evening. A number one US album, marriage and a daughter, a sold-out London headline show; Isbell isn’t so much going places, on the strength of this performance he may just have arrived.
Earlier, the crowd were held transfixed by John Moreland’s mixture of delicate finger-picking and choppy acoustic rhythms, even moreso by the room-filling, Steve Earle rasping beauty of his voice. There was little inter-song banter, but the only words necessary were those in the lyrics. His profile has gone from zero to next big thing in the blink of an eye, and it’s easy to understand why, the painfully blunt stories married to instantly memorable melody lines. He’s quoted as saying he writes to make himself feel better. It certainly had that effect on London.
Photography courtesy of Di Holmes Photography.