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Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit / Tift Merritt The Roundhouse

 

The Roundhouse is a large venue for a solo performer to command attention from an audience, but Tift Merrit in the support slot managed just that. As she came on stage in a long dress and opened up with the folky "Eastern Light" I did wonder if she'd be able to hold the audiences gaze. With an unusual exaggerated guitar playing style that sees her arms making huge sweeps over her rather battered looking guitar and a tendency to occasionally to put her head down like Francis Rossi only with an acoustic guitar, she was quite a sight. For the second song "Stray Paper" from 2004's "Tambourine" a more catchy uptempo number she suffered a broken string that caused her to have to quickly rethink her set.

She's from North Carolina and has released at least 6 albums so had plenty of material to draw on so for the next songs she moved to the piano which she played standing up, starting with "Small Talk Relations". For "Good Hearted Man" another track from her 2004 album, her sound was almost soulful and extremely effective. She then moved to a shiny red electric guitar to make some noise allegedly, but then proceeded to make more of a soundscape that accompanied "Travelling Alone" which Jason would later say was "Less whiny" than his song of the same name. .She did have an almost rockabilly intro for "Proclamation Bones" from her latest album "Stitch Of The World" and did have a better go at making some noise.

In an unusual step the next song "My Boat" was abandoned due to an out of tune guitar and she moved back to the piano for her closing song, for what I thought was her best song of the night "Another Country". It was a warm reception for a set that had to take an unscheduled detour from it's original course.

The main talk in the audience before his arrival was seemingly how great Jason had been at Brighton the previous night, a number of fans taking the chance to get a double dose of their hero. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit took to the stage knowing that they have a cracking album to promote in "The Nashville Sound" and they proceeded to unleash as good an opening 45 minutes as I have heard all year immediately plundering the album for "Hope The High Road" and "White Mans World", the latter with excellent guitar and organ work from Sadler Vaden and Derry deBorja respectively. The 400 Unit are to Jason what the E Street Band are to Bruce Springsteen and he regularly prowls the stage checking in with each member. The new album continued to be mined with the rocking intro that accompanies "Anxiety", a refreshing admission from a Country artist!.

Maybe it is the fact that he is from Alabama, but throughout the evening as he stood there dressed in black with immaculately coiffured hair, he did not exhibit one bead of sweat under the hot lights. The first non new album track kept up the momentum as it was the awesome "24 Frames" with its incessant chorus. Things quietened slightly as Jason moved to acoustic guitar for "Different Days" from "Southeastern". As they played "Molotov" you really had to marvel at 400 Unit, drummer Chad Gambles seemingly effortless percussion while bass player Jimbo Hart seemed to get the maximum from his instrument while making the bare minimum of movement, for many songs just shuffling up and down on the spot.

High spots came one after the other, the thrill of the rocking "The Life You Chose" questioning how you have got where you are. or "The Last Of My Kind"  which saw large sections of the crowd singing along. or perfectly capturing the angst in the delivery of "Travelling Alone".

The only time in the evening things dropped a little off the pace was for "Cumberland Gap", not that there was necessarily anything wrong with it, it is just that this sub Petty, Springsteen song seems a peculiarly throwaway rocker when compared to the rest of the material on show. It hardly mattered as it was followed, as it is on the new album by the quite wonderful, soulful "Tupelo" showing that Jason and his band can manage a variety of styles. The slightly off kilter time signature to "Stockholm" or the anthemic "Flying Over Water" were both delivered with aplomb.

Little did we know but the end was almost in sigh as the band disappeared leaving Jason to belt out the opening verse to "Cover Me Up", gradually the band materialised as the song built up. The final song of the main set was "Outfit" from when he was in Drive By Truckers, which saw a little bit of duelling guitars as the song reached its crescendo.

 

The encores consisted of "If We Were Vampires" and rather aptly a Tom Petty cover of "American Girl" which got the loudest reaction of the night. Last time Jason played London I thought he might get on the bill at C2C in one of the opening slots, forget that, if he does C2C it should be as a headliner!

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