Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
Friday 18th November 2022
Now my son lives on the outskirts of Manchester it gave me the opportunity to finally see Jason Isbell play ‘live.’ My friend and promoter for The Jumpin’ Hot Club insists I (must have) seen him in Newcastle when he kickstarted his solo career; but I have no recollection (age/drink correlation possibly).
This was also my first time at the Legendary Manchester Apollo, which was a treat too. What an amazing venue; starting with the Art Deco facade but the interior lay out meant that most fans had a pretty good view of the stage (unless to 6ft tall drunk school teachers rock up worse for wear 5 minutes before the headliner comes on and stand right in front of 5ft 7 me. It took a couple of minutes and some strong words, but they did move away eventually.)
Back to the beginning, a feisty Punk infused Power-Pop trio called His Lordship kick started the night. Coming across as a cross between The Jam, The White Stripes and The Arctic Monkeys they were full of energy, thrashy two minute inaudible 100 mph songs, that if my 14 year old Granddaughter was there to see, would have made them her Favourite Band of all time; but she wasn’t and 95% of the audience was 50+ and well ….. they received pleasant applause after every song, and some hardy souls in the front joined in with the call and response song; but hey – ho; James Walbourne may well be a mate of Isbell and have a fabulous CV as a jobbing musician, I was left totally non-plussed.
The stage hands were entertaining themselves, clearing the stage and re-filling it with military precision, and the atmosphere in the following ten minutes or so was palpable …. nearly electric, as 3, 500 fans who had initially bought their tickets over three years and two pandemic related cancellations ago waited for THE MAN!
The roar could have raised the roof when the stage door opened and Jason Isbell appeared swathed in light, then strolled quickly to the front of stage …. his smile as big as his jumbo acoustic guitar. With barely a count in, the band slid seamlessly into What Have I Done to Help from 202o’s DOOMSICLE album, which set the tone for a concert full of his trademarked intense and passionate songs, full of guitar interplay and a bass/drum/piano rhythm section on tip-top form.
My notes say they played 20 songs, before the will they/won’t they two encore songs …. spread over 1 hour and 45 minutes and not a song, note or minute was misplaced or wasted.
While I own and have reviewed several Jason Isbell albums; I’m no where near the type of fan like those surrounding me, who had that look on their faces normally associated with Dylan, Springsteen or Neil Young acolytes …. it seemed a mystical experience for some of them.
I’m not going to bore you with a description of every song he sung (I can’t; as I didn’t recognise every single song and my scribbled notes don’t seem to correlate with anything via Google!); but hopefully that leaves a bit of mystery for anyone going to a concert in the near future.
Highlights were many; who knew Jason Isbell was such a good …. nay; great guitarist? Oh …. everyone but me? On album you never know where the main act and the other guitarist come and go; but on stage he had no hiding place or safety net … and didn’t need one. He made it all look so easy be it on acoustic guitar (Dreamsicle and Only Children spring to mind …. but there were certainly others that made my jaw drop too), and his playing of the various electric guitars put him right up there with ant 21st Century Top 10 guitarists; he was extraordinarily good – which genuinely surprised me.
I had no idea what to expect song wise tonight; as he has such a large and varied back catalogue; the hair on the back of my neck rising during Elephant; and I was a bit confused during the whoops of recognition …. but I too knew Speed Trap Town and it was truly fabulous; just the right amount of both pathos and passion.
But, there were plenty of other songs that I didn’t instantly know, but Isbell’s delivery and the crystal clear sound system allowed me to wallow in and decipher too; which isn’t always the case at gigs.
Cover Me Up is a prime example; I’d all but forgot about it until tonight; and in this setting it was as thrilling as it was exciting, which is an odd thing to say about a primarily acoustic song; but it was.
A song from the recent Georgia Blue album, Honeysuckle Rose on the other hand featured ex-DRIVIN & CRYIN’ geetar player Sadler Verdon (who had done a fabulous impersonation of a young Tom Petty all night) on vocals and lead guitar while Jason went all Keef Richards in the background ….. a definite highlight for this poor boy!
But; pre-Encore; a song I basically didn’t know at all was my definite #1; as a) I like a surprise and b) it’s a stonker ….. Outfit; written for his Dad who was in the auditorium tonight was breathtaking and played out to an almost silent and reverential crowd; quite late in the set was followed by a roar worthy of either local football team scoring a last minute winner!
After all these years why are people still worried that a major act won’t do an encore? Especially when the house lights remain off and the road crew come on stage with new guitars?
Anyhow; Jason did come back (surprise surprise) and played two fabulous songs; one acoustic and the other …. well, it was my absolute Favourite song of his; and not quite one of his more popular ones; but it was the perfect end to a fabulous gig; and no …. I’m not going to tell you what either song was …. I have to leave a little bit of mystery and jeopardy don’t I?
To some degree, Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit restored my faith in the powers of good ole Rock and Roll on Friday night …. and I will be forever grateful.