AMERICAN Jason Isbell performed at the O2 Ritz in Manchester last night, Max Merrill went along for us…

On Saturday night, Manchester was treated to a little bit more than a ‘little bit country and a little bit rock and roll.’

Jason Isbell’s voice marries youthful verve with the scarring experience. A humble but commanding presence on stage, Jason Isbell is backed by an incredibly well-rehearsed band. The show is therefore a slick succession of songs occasionally interrupted by guitar solos and tales from the road.

Anecdotes between songs are told in an Alabama twang and with band members named Sadler, Jimbo, Derry, and Chad, it’s not hard to be reminded of the sheer ‘Southerness’ of Isbell’s music. However his brand of country music is not cheesy nor poppy. Instead it shares the honesty, melancholy, and bullish optimism of a working man’s heart; qualities reminiscent of the USA’s greatest songwriters.

Isbell carries in his songs the brutal honesty of a recovering alcoholic who is living a life filled with promise and redemption. Songs dedicated to his mother, father, and sobriety cut deep and certain lines can at times send shivers down your spine. But his tales are not sob-stories, they are as anthemic as they are emotive.

Jason Isbell and his band at the O2 Ritz in Manchester
Jason Isbell and his band at the O2 Ritz in Manchester

Isbell and his band take the audience on a ride filled with joy, nostalgia, pain, and optimism. The journey traverses the intimacy of ‘Cover Me Up‘ – a song that Isbell himself admitted was hard to write and where honest admissions of past failings where met with cheers from the crowd – to the boisterous defiance of ‘We Ain’t Never Gonna Change‘ – a toe-tapping rock song featuring a duelling guitar solo.

For someone who had an incredibly limited experience of Isbell’s songs, yours truly was hanging on every word, listening to every lick, and singing along to songs previously unknown.

The pace somewhat slowed after 12 songs, with the performance perilously close to drifting into uncertainty. But the quality of the songs and return to raucous riffing soon after saved the day.

The poignancy of Isbell’s lyrics still demanded attention and the quality of songs and musicianship would delight any lover of guitar music, regardless of genre preference.

It was clear to see that Isbell enjoyed his visit to Manchester, something he acknowledged in words with the grace and humility evident in his songs.

Isbell is not strikingly handsome, doesn’t showboat on stage, nor does he have the rock star arrogance sometimes present in supremely talented songwriters. Yet, he completely commanded the crowd with his talent and was able to marry modesty with authority to great effect.

You don’t need to be fan of his or even country music to have been thoroughly entertained by this act’s beautiful songs and fantastic performance.

The opening act

John Moreland, singer-songwriter from Oklahoma
John Moreland, singer-songwriter from Oklahoma

Isbell’s supreme performance was preceded by opening act John Moreland. A man with looks reminiscent of rapper Action Bronson but who sounded like a tortured soul with the voice that had lived a life worth telling.

It was just him and his guitar, no frills, just chills down the back of your spine. Every word was heard and he got the level of attention rarely given to a warm up act.

The crowd couldn’t help but fall in love, and John Moreland left the stage without a word but with many new fans. His songs scream of campfire nostalgia and are well worth a listen.

By: Max Merrill

Main image credit:
John Moreland image via Flickr under Creative Commons

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