Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit + Tift Merritt @ Symphony Hall, 31st October 2017

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit descend upon Birmingham in support of their 2017 release, ‘The Nashville Sound’. They choose to do so on the most malevolent of night’s, All Hallows’ Eve. Though Halloween’s origins were derived from western Europe, there is no denying that the festival as we know it today is a wholly American export, one that has seen a mesmeric rise in popularity in recent years, particularly in the UK. The same could easily be said for another American tradition which has seen a mightily impressive surge these last few years. I am of course, referring to the phenomenon that is country music.

The sounds of the American south have always had an audience in the UK, though more recently, there has been an unheralded appetite for all things derived from the genre. It has moved beyond the sphere of just the music. There are now television shows dedicated to it. In some instances, blurring the lines of fantasy and reality to the point where the actors have become recording artists in their own right. Of course, with any such populist movement, there will those who’s participation will be fleeting. They will hope to turn a quick profit, before moving on to the next “big thing”. Tonight’s headliner is certainly in it for the long haul, as to, is Isbell’s chosen support, Tift Merritt.

Hailing from Raleigh, North Carolina, Merritt has been releasing albums for well over a decade. Her output has seen the likes of Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell contribute to her recordings, most notably, on her 2013 album, ‘Traveling Companion’. The subsequent reception to its release saw Merritt receiving critical acclaim from all corners, the culmination of which, resulted in a Grammy nomination. Since this success, Merritt has quelled her own musical output somewhat, delving into a multitude of other interests, returning to the live music arena via secondments with the likes of Andrew Bird and MC Taylor’s band, ‘His Golden Messenger’.

Merritt greets the Birmingham audience with the charming admission that moments prior to taking the stage she’d realised that her dress was on inside out. This year has not only seen the arrival of Merritt’s first album in five years, ‘Stitch of the World’, but has also seen the arrival of her first child –  whom she has brought on tour and to whom she attributes the narrowly averted wardrobe malfunction – Merritt is warm and occasionally hints at a wholly devilish sense of humour – the set will be comprised of self deprecation at the expense of her recently acquired “soccer-mom haircut”, plus her offer to kiss any of those willing to purchase a copy of her album from the merchandise stall.

Merritt’s voice is firmly moulded around a classic country sensibility; at times sounding reminiscent of the great Emmylou Harris. The first song is the title track taken from Merritt’s latest release – Stitch of the World’ – Merritt is performing tonight, without any backing, which is a shame, as this song in particular, though performed beautifully, would have risen to further heights had the slide guitar that graces the album version not been absent.

‘All the Reasons We Don’t Have to Fight’ follows, before Merritt lays down her guitar and moves to the piano for ‘Good Hearted Man’ and ‘Icarus’, the latter, Merritt confides, a song she felt compelled to write for the mythological protagonist, choosing not to see it as a cautionary tale of the pitfalls of over-ambition, but instead, sharing an affinity towards aspirational undertakings. Speaking of aspirational undertakings, the culmination of Merritt’s set see’s her perform ‘Feel of The World’ without amplification. Teetering on the very edge of the stage, projecting herself out into the vast hall, which obligingly takes hold of Merritt’s vocal and guitar and carries them to the upper reaches of the room, such is the astounding acoustic quality of this vast hall.

Right on schedule, the towering presence of Jason Isbell emerges to take centre stage. Accompanied by the ever faithful 400 Unit, an ensemble that includes some of the most “musicianly” sounding names you could ever wish to hear – Chad Gamble (drums), Jimbo Hart on (bass), Derry deBorja (piano) and Sadler Vaden (guitar). After the briefest of greetings, Isbell and The 400 Unit, a name which denotes a sense of brawn, appropriately blast into the churning riff that signals ‘Anxiety’. This song perfectly encapsulates what Isbell is all about. The song is infused with strength and potency, but is also filled with a vulnerability and is shockingly candid. Add to this, Isbell’s striking vocals, and it forms a heady concoction which helps to explain the reason as to why Isbell is having to increase the size of venue he performs at with each new record.

It is a pleasure to witness such a revival. Having curtailed those aspects of his life which for so long, threatened to deprive him of a career, a family and the chance to perform in a venue like tonight’s. A point which is not lost on Isbell, as he makes multiple references to the beauty of the room throughout the evening. Most notably towards the end of the show he confides, “Trust me, we don’t take for granted the opportunity to perform in such rooms”.

A favourable portion of the setlist is set aside for the 400 Unit material: ‘Hope the High Road’, ‘Codeine’, ‘Molotov’, ‘Last of My Kind’ and ‘Cumberland Gap’ are enthusiastically delivered, and are graciously received. Songs taken from the band in which Isbell first made a name for himself, The Drive-By Truckers, also find a place on the list – ‘Decoration Day’ and ‘Never Gonna Change’, the latter fully justifying its place as the last song before the encore.

The starkest and most compelling moments of the evening come during the performances of Isbell’s more recent solo material. ‘Cover Me Up’ and ‘Something More Than Free’ are nothing short of stunning. ‘Stockholm’ explodes from the stage as Gamble navigates the way through the song with a tremendous focus. Isbell’s penchant for “shredding” is coaxed out into the open by fellow guitarist, Vaden, as they dual with each other towards the end of a set which sees the band return for an encore, performing ’If We Were Vampires’, before an unexpected, and glorious cover of ‘Refugee’ brings an epic evening to a close.


Reviewer: Chris Curtis

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