Jason Isbell and Tift Merritt, Birmingham Symphony Hall, 31st October 2017

 

I booked the tickets for this gig in a moment of passion for music, but as the date came closer I was filled with reluctance because it would be a school/work night, and I knew I’d be tired. Of course, I’m glad I went, although the traffic in Birmingham at arrival time was a shitshow, and going home I was tired enough to cause a couple of Google reroutes.

It was the first time I’d seen Jason Isbell live, and the seventh time seeing Tift Merritt, who’s one of those artists I just buy the new record without even thinking about it. Above is my favourite track from her latest album Stitch of the World, which I was disappointed she did not play. Her 30 minutes on stage was fairly low key and subdued, as she picked songs from her repertoire that lent themselves to solo performance and the sound in the room. I also realised that she was being a good support act citizen, and not doing anything that might embarrass the headliner.

The Symphony Hall is a brilliant space for music. Once the Birmingham rush hour traffic and the city centre diversions had been negotiated, we walked into a venue that felt very unpressurised. It’s a 2000+ seater, and although I didn’t spot empty seats, it was pleasant to be inside and very easy to get away from, with none of the interminable waiting for crowds to disperse that you get at bigger venues like the O2. The acoustics in the hall are just fantastic, and the view you get of the stage, even from one of the upper circles at the back, is good. I previously saw Trisha Yearwood and Mary Chapin Carpenter there, but it had been a few years.

Tift Merritt was performing with guitar (both acoustic and an open tuned electric) and keyboard (borrowing the keys from the main act), and her wonderful voice filled the room. Third song in, she stood at the keys and played “Good Hearted Man” and my allergies started playing up.

(Yep, still works – this is from Austin City Limits, a few years ago)

For her final number, she stepped out from behind the mic, as she so often does. She recorded a live album a few years ago here in Buckingham, mainly because she loved the sound of the room. Apart from Jonathan Richman (who I’ve seen somewhere between 9 and 11 times), she’s the only artist I’ve ever seen do that. (When I see these fucking buskers on the high street with their amps and mics and noisy backing tracks, I want to slap them around a bit and force feed them Tift Merritt.)

 

Then came the interval, and we got to see Tift Merritt clearing up her own equipment, before Jason Isbell arrived promptly on stage at nine.

His set was mainly highlights from his last three albums, heavy on the (heavy) Nashville Sound, backed by his band The 400 Unit, who are very, very good. It was the classic line-up: two guitarists (both capable of playing lead), bass, drums, and keyboards. Isbell’s lead vocals were strong all night, and the rest of the band all contributed backing vocals. The only missing element was violinist Amanda Shires-Isbell, who stayed at home with their young daughter. Isbell was wearing a Wonder Woman t-shirt in honour of his daughter’s Hallowe’en costume.

The superb 90-minute set contained light and shade, from the hard rocking likes of “Anxiety” and “Molotov” to the shimmering “If We Were Vampires” (which is not anodyne, thanks, Mr Jeremy “Cunt” Hunt).

 

“Hope the High Road” was delivered with passion, and the powerful lyrics of “White Man’s World” couldn’t have been more apposite. Perhaps he should have played that one into Jeremy Hunt’s face on the Marr Show. But then, he is on the high road.

My favourite moments were when the sound opened out with one of the players taking an acoustic guitar and the other playing (usually slide) lead. Songs like “Stockholm” and “Last of My Kind” were brilliant, but perhaps my favourite of the night was “Codeine”, from his 2011 album Here We Rest:

If there’s one thing I can’t stand
It’s this bar and this cover band
Trying to fake their way through ‘Castles Made of Sand.’
That’s one thing I can’t stand

If there’s one thing I can’t take
It’s the sound that a woman makes
About five seconds after her heart begins to break
That’s one thing I can’t take

She should be home by now but she ain’t
I should’ve gone by now but I cain’t
One of my friends has taken her in and given her Codeine
One of my friends has taken her in and given her Codeine

The final encore of the night (so glad we stayed) was Tom Petty’s “Refugee”, which was delivered with every bit as much passion and commitment as the original. My kid, 17, sitting to my left, had tears in her eyes.

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Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free

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After catching on – late, thanks, iTunes – to Jason Isbell’s Southeastern, I pre-ordered his 2015 offering Something More Than Free immediately.

It’s pretty much more of the same good stuff – possibly an even better collection of tunes. Isbell has a pleasant, gruff voice, and sings with an oddly affecting deadpan that allows his lyrics to shine through the song arrangements.

The mood shifts between driving rock rhythms (’24 Frames’) and gently strummed acoustic guitar (‘Flagship’), with the lightest touch of country. ‘Children of Children’ turns out to be quite heavy with a long coda featuring a wig-out guitar solo against a bed of strings – one of my favourite sound combos. ‘How to Forget’ is upbeat but obviously rooted in desperate sadness. It has a jaunty rhythm and a spiffy but short guitar solo. On ‘The Life You Chose’, Isbell drops Sylvia Plath references and the drums shuffle along as he reflects on his feelings for an old flame:

“Are you living the life you chose?

Are you living the life that chose you?”

But this is no typical man-who-thinks-he’s-wronged cliché. By the end, it’s clear that the singer’s questions are more directed more towards himself than the old flame.

The standout track for me so far is ’24 Frames’, which has intriguing if gnomic lyrics. What does it mean? 24 frames represents the space of a second, it’s the way the eye is tricked into seeing moving pictures. So I’d guess the song is about the dream-like quality of film but also the way that things can change – be lost – in an instant.

You thought god was an architect now you know

He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow

And everything you built that’s all for show

Goes up in flames in 24 frames

An excellent set, which in spite of its downbeat moods leaves you feeling oddly hopeful.

The River and Southeastern

I entirely blame the crapness of the iTunes curators for this, but Jason Isbell and his album Southeastern completely passed me by until recently, when I read about him in an article by one of my two trusted sources for Country music news and information. The first of these is Grady Smith, who has been writing about Country for the Guardian for a while. I think he started around October last year, but it took a while for me to notice, because as far as the Graun is concerned, this is something for their US edition and doesn’t get the prominence on the UK home pages.

The second source is Chuck Dauphin, whose column The 615 on Billboard.com is a useful source of release information. While both sources are male, both are critical of the Country music industry’s current sexism and obsession with (subtextually racist) songs about trucks and beer. Their tastes don’t exactly match with mine, but they at least offer a path to check things out.

The problem with Jason Isbell is that iTunes doesn’t even categorise him under Country but (depending on the album) under Blues or Singer/Songwriter, the latter of which is possibly the least useful genre category that music can offer.

Southeastern came out in 2013 and is under Blues, which is just ridiculous. I mean, yes, all pop music has its roots in the blues, but watch the video above of an excellent performance of the wonderful song ‘Stockholm’ on the Letterman show and tell me you’d file this one under Blues. I love it when a good album has a truly excellent track like that, because it means there is absolutely no work involved in deciding whether I like something or not. So, thanks to whichever of my two sources it was, Grady or Chuck, I downloaded Southeastern and have now pre-ordered the forthcoming Something More Than Free.

I really like his sound – guitars and keys with a bit of violin, it’s quintessentially Country. He has a smooth voice with some break in it and writes great melodies. ‘Stockholm’ is my new jam.

Meanwhile, back in 1980, Bruce Springsteen released an album called The River. There are a few things I remember around the release of this record. The first is that Julie Burchill wrote a scathing review of it in the NME, which was never a publication known for identifying a stone classic on initial release. Turns out, Burchill’s sneering at Springsteen’s use in his lyrics of simple girls’ names ending in -ie or -y (why, like Julie, Julie?) and what she saw as his over-use of cars and highways, was kind of missing the point. The second thing I remember is that the double album was priced as a single and came in a single, non-gatefold sleeve. I was slightly disappointed at the use of tiny black and white photographs (for example of the art installation Cadillac Ranch, immortalised in the song), but can’t knock him for trying to look after his fans’ pockets.

And the final thing I remember is that I got The River for my 18th birthday and left home (just like in the song ‘Independence Day’) about three weeks later.

So what of The River? Did it deserve the Burchill sneers, or does it stack up as the pinnacle of a great musician-songwriter’s career, Springsteen’s equivalent of Blood on the Tracks? Well, of course I’m biased, but there are a number of reasons I think this is his best work. Born in the USA, while it was a huge seller and transformed his career, is spoiled for me through the use of nasty synths and that wardrobe-falling-downstairs-in-a-cathedral 80s drum sound which is just horrible. Following that, Tunnel of Love was less bombastic but equally compromised by 80s production trends, while the Human Touch/Lucky Town release dumps the E Street Band and have the air of a mid-life crisis. They meant a lot to me at the time, but I don’t think they hold up today.

Of course, and to continue to draw the parallel with Dylan, Born to Run is his Highway 61 Revisited, and I’m not for one moment suggesting that it and Darkness on the Edge of Town aren’t essential. But The River has a scale and a breadth and a maturity in terms of songwriting that make it stand out for me.

To address the car thing: yes, it’s not a mistake that so many of the songs feature cars. It’s an album which rests on the automobile as a metaphor for freedom, prosperity and social mobility, Springsteen’s version of the green light in The Great Gatsby. Cars are for driving – but in this case it might be driving your girlfriend’s mum down to the unemployment agency. Or it might be driving endless highways in fear of ending up buried in the ground at the Cadillac Ranch, a symbol of the dead American dream. Or it might mean driving all night because it’s the only job you can find; or driving a stolen car both fearing and hoping you’ll get caught. It’s about the way you keep doing the thing you used to do because it’s all you know how to do, because you don’t know how to change and are trapped in your life.

I repurchased The River for the third time (!) the other day and I’ve been listening to it as an album for the first time in over 20 years. Whereas my restless younger self would keep skipping tracks and playing favourites over and over, as was my habit, I’ve been listening all the way through, from start to finish. And it’s great. Not a single dud track, which is incredible, given its length. It helps that my younger daughter is really into Springsteen right now, and it’s so great to be seeing this stuff through her fresh perspective. You cease to doubt something’s status as a classic when it speaks so powerfully to a different generation, 35 years on. Thirty-five years, and it sounds fresh and bright and full of raw emotion – and a river runs through it.

In many ways a pessimistic album, it was released at the beginning of the Reagan/Thatcher era, and the start of the decline of our civil society into the cauldron of nasty selfishness that has replaced human decency and empathy as far as political discourse is concerned. But to listen to The River is to remember that humanist values are still the best that we have, and that our ability to empathise with other people is what makes us good.

An ambulance finally came and took him to Riverside
I watched as they drove him away
And I thought of a girlfriend or a young wife
And a state trooper knocking in the middle of the night
To say your baby died in a wreck on the highway

Sometimes I sit up in the darkness
And I watch my baby as she sleeps
Then I climb in bed and I hold her tight
I just lay there awake in the middle of the night
Thinking ’bout the wreck on the highway