At last Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit are able to fulfil their date which was postponed due to Covid and the wait has clearly only heightened anticipation as a packed Apollo gives the Southern Man a rapturous welcome onto the biggest stage he has played in this city yet.
In the five years since he last visited, the 2020 album Reunions achieved massive sales and propelled Isbell higher still in the pantheon of great singer-songwriters. Gaining multiple Number 1 slot across the Pond, Isbell is remarkable in his level of success without widespread airplay. It’s good to see that, as the rammed venue tonight testifies, not every taste can be dictated by mainstream media and radio.
The evening kicks off with a rollicking set from His Lordship, the new project of Pretenders guitarist James Wallbourne. It was a tour de force of a display as the three-piece tore through a set of scintillating new material, including a bizarre moment that saw drummer Kris Sonner leap over the drumkit and launch into a surreal vocal interlude. Watching His Lordship makes one ponder as to whether the spirits of Motorhead have possessed these bodies, morphed with The Shadows and taken every drug they can get their hands on! Note to self, see these crazy cats again!
Isbell and his band start their set with the pensive tones of What Have I Done To Help?, the opening track of Reunions, the “new” album that would have been toured two years ago if it hadn’t been for…….you know. This is followed by the mesmerising 24 Frames and the fragile beauty of Dreamsicle. Hope The High Road from 2017’s The Nashville Sound, was a rallying call to all those concerned by political and social developments at the time, yet it still seems relevant to those here tonight.
Jason Isbell is on great form tonight, clearly loving being able to share his music this side of the Atlantic. We are even treated to Drive by Truckers classic, Outfit, written from the words his dad (who is present tonight) spoke to him upon joining that particular bunch of Alabama Hell-raisers. He shares the story of when he and long-time friend and bassist Jimbo Hart once played to an audience consisting of precisely zero people, but they didn’t give up. Plenty to think about there for any impressionable young ‘uns here tonight.
For the last nine years, seeing Jason Isbell live has involved steeling yourself for the performance of his most, no, one of THE most gripping songs ever written; Elephant. Whatever the true origins of the song, there’s no doubt that the spiky, yet heart-breaking narrative of the dying cancer victim, with the conclusion that “no one dies with dignity” brings an electrifying hush to the room. Encore of If We Were Vampires is further evidence of Isbell’s ability to wrestle with the harsh realities of life that many would prefer to ignore.
In 2020, Isbell promised to record a charity album if Georgia were to vote for Joe Biden in the Presidential Election. Good to his word, last year, he delivered an album of covers of songs by Georgia artists to raise funds for charities linked to fair voting in the South. The song played tonight, Honeysuckle Blue, is performed by Sadler Vaden as it’s from his previous band, Drivin’ ‘n’ Cryin’ and what a track it is!
With a host of other sing-along classics such as Alabama Pines, Stockholm and Cover Me Up, this truly was a show worth waiting for. The final song, Super 8, is delivered with such gusto it nearly takes the roof off this Art Deco musical cathedral. “We’ll see you again soon folks” says Isbell as the band take a bow. We’ll hold you to that Jason.
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