The DJ Sessions


Live Review : Jason Isbell, Union Chapel, London 28th January 2023

Americana UK | January 30, 2024

In town for a bit of promotion and to attend the AMAUK awards,  Jason Isbell arrived at The Union Chapel surfing a very high wave of admiration and affection from his British audience. The queue was round the block for the unreserved seating at least 2 hours before kick off and every seat was taken swiftly as the shivers of anticipation grew towards the 8.45pm start. Given the setting and the worshipful murmur it really did have the vibe of some kind of communion.

Bang on time he took to the stage,  just him, a guitar and a small set of effects pedals. The applause was warm but then quickly stopped as a hugely respectful silence descended. Joking about getting the requests out the way first thing in order to play what the hell he wanted afterwards he launched into ‘Relatively Easy’ and the deal was done. We all knew that we were in safe hands. The sound was pin sharp, the audience respectful to a fault and both voice and guitar were completely on point as he then slipped seemingly effortlessly into ‘Speedtrap Town’ and ‘Strawberry Woman’ all sounding as if they were completely natural fits together, as indeed they are. As the gig continued there were stories and anecdotes as the affection in the room clearly relaxed  Isbell even more and he added fills and instrumental runs before and during songs.

‘Different Days’ was revelatory as he mined the darkness and seemingly came up for air whilst telling the story of the writing of ‘Travelling Alone‘, referencing Springsteen, before thundering into a blistering ’24 Frames‘ complete with Springsteen growl and shuffle. His anecdote about a young fan loving ‘Live Oak’ but being horrified by Isbell’s suggestion that perhaps she hadn’t been dead when ‘ deep she touched the water table line‘  leavened the plaintive horror of the song, delivered here in aching melancholy tones and with patently honest emotion. Watching him solo, unadorned by band arrangements and responsibilities, reveals the deep social realism of his lyricism; every nuance highlighted by his deeply expressive and often powerful voice. ‘Alabama Pines‘ was warmly received and delivered and was swiftly followed by a towering ‘Elephant’. As always in these situations you are left asking how does one man with one guitar unlock emotions so deep? This was followed by the ‘Reunions’ track ‘Overseas’ which sounded like both a new song and an ancient classic, freed as it was from the band arrangement and ‘If We Were Vampires’ was greeted with huge affection as Isbell laid his burden down.  This was then followed by another track shorn of its album arrangement but lyrically packing the biggest punch from ‘Weathervanes’, ‘The King of Oklahoma’, whose chorus could be heard being softly sung by the whole congregation, it laid bare the poverty trap and prescription drug crisis working class America. And when I say congregation, by now it appeared that that was what is was, almost a spiritual coming together, full of murmur and sad smiles, clinging to the light heartedness of Isbell’s intersong play to leaven the stripped heartbreak of his songs.

‘Something More Than Free’ set up the inevitable but still coruscating (in both senses of the word) ‘Decoration Day’ and he was gone to tumultuous applause.  Moments later and full of gratitude and his trademark Southern humility he sent the audience on their way with ‘Cover Me Up’ and ‘Cast Iron Skillet’.

A truly memorable evening. Here is a consummate singer, songwriter and musician absolutely at the top of his game sharing his songs in a genuine conversation. There is no arrogance or artifice here. These were quiet fireworks bursting into life as you savoured the words, the delivery and the vibrations of his guitar strings. There was nothing new here and yet every song shone as if freshly minted just for us, just for this moment, in this extraordinary venue. What a skill and what a privilege.

Gawd bless ya, Jason.

Written by Americana UK


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