This is my fourth evening in the company of Jason Isbell and each occasion has upped the stakes. It’s actually the second time at the Garage too, but rather than an electric trio that a couple of years hence suffered unwelcome guitar tech issues and played to a half filled room, this one’s a sell out. Jason is in the UK with his wife Amanda Shires and although billed to play their own sets, they obviously make a good live package, as their natural familiarity also translates into a winning musical chemistry.
During Amanda’s set she calls Jason out to join her and jokes that she’s, “Only on the tour because of the wedding ring.” Jason quips back with an “Aw, shucks honey! You’d be welcome even if we were only dating,” but as good as Amanda undoubtedly is on both fiddle and ukulele, with one of those heart melting voices too, it’s what they do together that works best. Let’s also be realistic this is Jason’s show, although I’ve personally seen enough to make Amanda’s return to The Slaughtered Lamb next May, something for the longer term diary.
There’s a bloke to my left who also seems enthused and he’s already getting a little over emotional as the couple duet. As the support set finishes, his cry of, “We love you Jason,” however, betrays what he’s really here for. Then, there really is a keen anticipation everywhere. The short break is a-buzz before the promise is fulfilled.
Since the last time Jason took the Garage stage and looked down on the assorted ranks of the musically in-the-know, or merely curious, myself included somewhere in the middle of that, there’s been a new album. Two in fact if you count the live one, but Southeastern (Album of the Month Review here) is the main deal and also every bit as good as Here We Rest. Put the two together and you have something that in my book is almost peerless. So, I’m absolutely in my element tonight, while the bloke to my left is caught somewhere between the here and now of Jason’s performance and heavenly ascension.
Live Oak opens, a dark tale, but when Jason sings, “We robbed a great-lakes freighter, killed a couple of men aboard, when I told her, her eyes flickered like the sharp steel of a sword,” the hairs on my neck stand proud. Different Days follows and the bloke to my left knows every word, he’ll probably try and duet the entire evening repertoire, but then I know why.
The third song is a cue for Amanda Shires to come and add more fiddle and her gorgeous voice to proceedings. She takes the scenic route to the stage and Jason ribs her, “That’s twice you’ve had to take the stage and twice you’ve come out of the wrong door.” She seems to take the teasing in good spirits with a broad grin, but then they launch into Decoration Day. It’s one of a couple of Jason’s older songs to make the cut and a real classic as well, which has the guy to my left hitting the elevator button for the penthouse suite of rapture towers.
The song finishes with quite a long monologue about his family and the suggestion that there are rumours and secrets, some of which, may be coyly laced through some of these songs. It apparently splits the family into two camps, those that think, “They should be making movies out of all of this shit,” and those who just hate Jason. There is no such divide and certainly no room for the latter here tonight. The entire room seems pin sharp and given the acoustic setting, mostly pin-drop quite. I have a moment of concern, as I note that the bloke to my left has suddenly gone very quiet.
As is natural most of the new CD makes the set, Stockholm, Yvette, Flying Over Water and so on. Strangely, or actually probably not, Travelling Alone seems to provoke the first massed sing along, although Codeine and Alabama Pines from the previous CD, have a bit more confidence and volume about the audience’s impromptu rendition. I’m happy to note that the bloke formerly to my left, now to my right (I’ve had to move due to some unthinking soul’s sly and repeated emission of noxious gasses and the arrival of the only two inconsiderate Muppets who seem to want to talk all the way through, suddenly standing right behind me), greets everything with the simple accolade of, “Brilliant!” He’s not wrong.
Of course there has to be time for Outfit, dressed as it always seems to be with an appropriately humorous introduction. On the flipside Jason also asks, “Are you all alright?” When he doesn’t get an immediate massed response, he chides, “Come on I have to know, coz I know these songs are sad as shit and I need to know you’re doing OK!” He continues, “Hell, you can pretend that I’m singing about fairy castles and unicorns, just so long as it gets you through, but this is the saddest of them all.” He is of course referring to Elephant and no one will leave the room untouched by that one.
Just to cap it all, he encores saying, “This is my favourite country song ever,” before launching into Poncho And Lefty. This time it’s me singing along with every word. I’ve lost sight of the other bloke and whether he’s to my left or right now, in a veil of my own misty eyed surrender. Wherever he’s got to I’m absolutely sure as I hit the streets that rather like me he’s had a very special night.
Review by: Simon Holland
Jason Isbell & Amanda Shires – Pancho & Lefty – The Garage, London – 20 November 2013
Southeastern is released 7th Oct via Thirty Tigers
Order it on Amazon