Jason Isbell & Tift Merritt

October 30, 2017
The Roundhouse, London

“I had a premonition that I was going to break a string”
Tift Merritt’s broken string featured heavily in her set, more so by reputation than any noticeable impact on the song in which it snapped. Her guitar showed other signs of being well used. Her vocals and lyrics spoke of experience too. Good Hearted Man was particularly powerful, with a rich twang and deep croak.

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The broken string shaped the set, pushing Merritt towards her other guitar for Traveling Alone. She revealed she’d considered avoiding the song since Jason Isbell has one of the same name. The crowd was glad of her decision to include it. The song was sweet and the vocals soaring.

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Facing adversity alone on such a big stage would faze many performers but Merritt seemed energised by it. “Sometimes those are the best shows,” she exclaimed. Her fans sensed that all bets were off and started calling out songs. In a fine show of Southern belle dry wit, she quipped “somebody in the audience knows my songs by title…I’m going to do something other than that.”

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Merritt switched between electric guitar and keys but returned to the electro-acoustic to try to play the songs her eager fans wanted. Sometimes perseverance paid off but more often her sense of professional pride led her to abandon the songs with a sweet smile. As good as they sounded, she knew she could do better. The crowd appreciated her high standards and determination.

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Tift Merritt’s album Stitch Of The World is out now. Head to tiftmerritt.com to buy the CD with three extra tracks compared to the download.

“Chad likes this place. He hates it everywhere.”
It clearly wasn’t just Chad, the drummer, that appreciated The Roundhouse. The fans were eager to see Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit on such a big stage with a stunning light show. Isbell clearly liked what he saw from his vantage point over the former train turning shed too. He’d been primed for something special; Frank Turner recommended it following his triumphant festival there earlier in the year.

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Isbell’s relationship with the UK goes deeper than our impressive venues. There’s a sense that British fans understand his Americana sound and questioning ethos, rather than seeing it as  curious outlier compared to the girls, guns and trucks preoccupations of modern day U.S. country radio.

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This is especially true of the songs from his latest album, The Nashville Sound. He opened the show with Hope The High Road, White Man’s World and Anxiety, which cover privilege, neuroses and injustice without preaching or overreaching.

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It’s not a new perspective for Isbell. Different Days, from 2013 album Southeastern, is easy to hear as a nostalgic lullaby but The Roundhouse’s pure acoustics foregrounded the darker lyrics: “what you got to run away to?/Just another drunk daddy with a white man’s point of view/…You can strip in Portland from the day you turn 16.” It’s uncompromising but leaves space for reflection and change: “Ten years ago I might have stuck around for another night/and used her in a thousand different ways/but those were different days.”

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Isbell later touched on his own demons, and the UK crowd was right there cheering his recovery when he sang “haven’t been wasted in a long time” in Tupelo. It was not all about introspective, semi-autobiographical lyrics, of course. Cumberland Gap was particularly electric with rumbling riffs. Isbell’s prowess on the guitar, backed by a tight band, had fans slow dancing at the back of the room to the sublime song 24 Frames.

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In a lengthy set, Isbell had time to cover songs by Drive-By Truckers. He shared their top tip from Outfit – “don’t sing with a fake British accent” – but it’s not a consideration that the London crowd reciprocated. They collectively shared their best Southern drawl to sing along to Something More Than Free. The Life You Choose was another exuberant singalong, as was Traveling Alone. Isbell had obviously watched Tift Merrit’s support set, acknowledging her right to play her song of the same name and joking “hers is from the not so whiny perspective!”

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Nobody else in that room saw him as whiny, especially during the heartfelt acoustic rendition of If We Were Vampires. A few days later, MP Jeremy Hunt reportedly described it as anodyne. If you know anything at all about Hunt (there’s a reason people routinely point his name rhymes with c***), that should tell you everything you need to about the true quality of the song.

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The band was solid from the get go but the real lights and fury were saved for the end. Drive By Truckers’ Never Gonna Change was a raucous call-and response played high on the neck. A greater high was yet to come. The show closed on an epic version of American Girl, in tribute to Tom Petty who had died a few weeks before.

Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit’s latest album, The Nashville Sound, is out now. Some European tourdates have been announced for June 2018 so it’s worth keeping an eye on jasonisbell.com in hopes of some UK dates. 

Like what you see? There are more photos of the show over on Flickr. Please follow me there, and here:

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