Friday night saw the Grammy award winning Hall of Famer Jason Isbell take to the stage at Dublin’s Olympia theatre as it filled its stalls and floor with people eager to hear that Nashville sound.
This tour is in support of Isbell’s latest album with his band The 400 Unit; the album (The Nashville Sound) is a contender for the 2017 Country Music Awards’ Album of the year.
Country music in Ireland has taken a turn for the worse with an abundance of waste coat wannabes who wouldn’t know about Isbell and his success but for those that know him, we were in for a master class in song writing, guitar playing and humility.
The night was opened by Tift Merritt who stood on a lonely stage accompanied by her 1969 Gibson B-15; “Little Red”. We were treated to folk gold and the imagery painted with her lyrics was easy to understand as the crowd showed her absolute respect through silence. More haunting moments were brought about by a change to a Gibson ES-335 before fans began to request songs from her back catalogue.
A highlight of Merritt’s set to someone completely new to her material was her song “Travelling Alone” a continuing structure of verses building in intensity and showing an admiration for a life on the road; this is evidently genuine as Merritt thanks the crowd at the end of her set for listening and she shows her appreciation for the building in which she has played.
A short interval built the suspense in the crowd before Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit appeared; the crowd who had eagerly awaited this moment erupted as the band took their places. “Anxiety” was the opening number with a heavy southern rock and almost orchestral build up to a soft landing of personal woe “Anxiety why do you always get the best of me?”
Each member plays their part with confidence and the band work like a well oiled machine. Sadler Vaden and Jason Isbell trade lead guitar parts and can only be described as masters of their instruments showcasing amazing slide playing, country and rock licks while Isbell also shone with his bluegrass acoustic runs.
While we’re on the topic of guitars both players were showcasing some amazing instruments; Isbell played a 2014 Gibson Les Paul Collector’s Choice Gold Top #12 modelled after a ‘57 for most of the night along with a 2014 Custom Shop ’60 Tele and a Duesenberg Fullerton Elite. His acoustic of choice was his signature Martin D-18 which sounded outstanding. Vaden used a Mexican ‘98 Tele Deluxe ‘72 Reissue for most of the set but changed to a 12 string Danelectro for some songs including 24 Frames.
The set contained songs from Isbell’s past solo albums and his previous band Drive by Truckers notably the song “Decoration Day” which depicts a protagonist’s unwillingness to continue his father’s feud with his enemies. Isbell’s slide section is impeccable and makes way for Vaden who brings about the songs final intensity with a blistering and emotional solo.
Songs from the band’s latest album show Isbell’s shift in focus to the future with the highly romantic “Vampires” which deals with the fact that one day either him or his lover will be gone and the anger fuelled “White Man’s World” which is a response to the vote which made Trump president.
“Cover Me Up” may be Isbell’s best known song; another love story that had couples hold tighter as he sang. The crowd applauded and cheered as he sang the line “I sobered up and I swore off that stuff, forever this time” a hint at his personal troubles and how love inspired him to fight them.
The band returned to the stage for an encore and for whatever reason one Strike of a D chord was enough for me to recognise what was coming; a cover of Tom Petty’s “American Girl” as a tribute to the recently departed rock and roll hero. Afterwards i learnt that Isbell has been ending each of his shows with a different Tom Petty song, a gracious tribute and one which was appreciated by a filled Olympia theatre. This was an intimate gig by one of the world’s leading songwriters, one which leaves you with a positive feeling for days and a want to practice guitar for weeks on end.