Jason Isbell

support John Moreland
author TL date 09/01/16 venue Store Vega, Copenhagen, DEN

Back in 2012, former Drive-By Truckers member Jason Isbell found his way to Copenhagen as a solo act, singing his own songs only accompanied by his acoustic guitar, while warming up for the considerably more famous Ryan Adams as the two had a show together in Falconer Salen. Since then, however, the Alabama country/blues songwriter has grown his own name considerably, rising to more widespread fame with two great releases in 2013's "Southeastern" and last year's "Something More Than Free". He has returned to Denmark with his own band as part of the 2014 Roskilde Festival, and now he is back as his own headliner at a sold-out show at one of the capital's premium venues. Not bad for a man without a flashy bandname, who plays a genre of music - country - which is often talked of as hokey old people's music.

All photos courtesy of philipbh.com

John Moreland

Before the performance of Jason Isbell, however, the crowd is to be warmed up with a handful of songs from John Moreland, a resident of Tulsa, Oklahoma with two albums out as a solo performer so far. He performs alone on this tour, seated with his acoustic guitar, playing melancholic country tunes, which display his expertise as a finger playing guitarist and as a melodious singer with a husky, full-bodied voice. His songs prove to be relatively conservatively crafted, and stripped down from their more elaborate recorded arrangements, the guitar playing is soulful yet simple and repetitive, never straying outside of the role of a backbone to the lyrical narratives. This means that the main takeaway instrumentally, is that Moreland understands how to vary the intensity of his playing, giving his songs some dynamics, but otherwise omits other flourishes as an acoustic performer.

This puts the focus more on Moreland's voice, which is his best asset by far, and on his lyrics, which admittedly come across a bit on the plain side, compared to what we are looking forward to from Jason Isbell. Themes of unrequited love recur, yet without the elegant and memorable lyrical images you really look for in the best artists of this kind, so although Moreland sings in a way that makes you feel like his lyrics are indeed personal to him, lines like for instance "I'd take a diamond from the sky and put it in your ring" feel more common than touching. You get the mixed impression overall then, of a performance that is pleasant to listen to in the moment, but it is difficult to answer if you ask yourself what about Moreland's music that really stands on its own. Add to the fact that he performs the whole set with eyes closed and with little more than the minimum communication to connect with the audience, and this support gig is enjoyable, yet also forgettable.

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Jason Isbell

After people have spent the changeover refreshing their beers and packing into a crammed Vega like fish in a barrel, it is time for the headliner, who appears backed by his four-man band The 400th Unit, who aid him with drums, bass, electric guitar and interchangeably a keyboard and an accordion. Isbell himself switches between electric and acoustic guitar as his songs call for it, starting the set with "Stockholm" from "Southeastern". In the very beginning, the guitars are a bit on the louder side considering the mellow feel of the song, though this is soon adjusted, and Isbell and band seem a bit stiff, yet the quality of the song itself comes across unhindered. And as it turns out, Isbell does not really have anything in store for us on this tour, apart from just that - the quality of his songs. His band plays tightly and with a deft touch, and he himself both sings and plays impeccably, at times trading slide guitar solos with guitarist Sadler Vaden, while the set is otherwise bare bones: There's no special light setup, no backdrop and not much to remember in terms of friendly banter from Isbell, other than the traditional introduction of each band member.

The set thus shines and fades by the strength of the songs played, which both provide glimpses of just why Isbell's career has grown so much, yet also show on occasion that he and the band have some strange ideas about what their best material is. Not that a band has to play its most popular song to close their show for instance, but it seems like a genuine surprise to the band on stage, when the crowd goes positively nuts two-thirds into the set, over the soulful rendition of "Cover Up" from "Southeastern". People yell, whistle, clap and stomp the floor like thunder following the song, as if the regular set was about to end, despite there being four more songs to follow. And this in stark contrast to the song before, the frankly annoying "Super 8", also from "Southeastern", which is a banal country-rock tune that truly brings forth images of jam musicians playing old country tunes in a fairground beer tent somewhere in the back end of nowhere.

"Super 8" being among Isbell's more festive tunes, you get the impression that it is likely included to give the set some more upbeat variety, but ironically, Isbell and his band are by far their most engaging when things are toned down and more thoughtful. "24 Frames", airing very early in the set, sounds every bit the instantly infectious mega-hit-in-country-clothing that it should be, while the retrospective "Different Days" really spreads the good vibes among the audience soon after. In songs like these we also hear that while Isbell is far from some high-minded, ivory tower poet, he has a knack for penning lines that resonate with the type of hard-earned life experience many listeners can recognise from their own coming of age. And later in the set, songs like "Speed Trap Town" and "Children Of Children" also provide some samples of the strengths of the newest album.

Ultimately, Isbell and his band deliver a performance that is solid more than anything else, where their greatest asset is Isbell's greatest songs. Which is also why tunes like "Elephant", "Flagship" and "Songs That She Sang In The Shower" glare somewhat in their absence. Again, you sort of understand why Isbell wants to include his past via songs like "Outfit", "Never Gonna Change" and "Codeine", but particularly the former makes for a lull in the show tonight, where bar breaks and spread out chatter become much more frequent, proceeding through the aforementioned "Super 8" and until loud shushing resounds through the audience at that point where they realised "Cover Up" was next. And this seems symptomatic, of how Jason Isbell could be playing even better shows by gearing the experience more towards his balladic material, and by maybe opening up and taking a break here and there to communicate with the crowd about the show or the songs. As it is tonight, though, his show has a strong base level, yet definitely also has both highs and lows, occasionally sending your attention drifting, and occasionally bringing it back to exhilaration.

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Setlist:

  • 1. Stockholm
  • 2. Palmetto Rose
  • 3. 24 Frames
  • 4. Something More Than Free
  • 5. Decoration Day
  • 6. Different Days
  • 7. Alabama Pines
  • 8. Traveling Alone
  • 9. Outfit (originally released with Drive-By Truckers)
  • 10. Super 8
  • 11. Cover Me Up
  • 12. Relatively Easy
  • 13. Speed Trap Town
  • 14. Never Gonna Change (originally released with Drive-By Truckers)
  • 15. Children Of Children

-Encore-

  • 16. If It Takes A Lifetime
  • 17. Codeine

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