Originally scheduled for damned if I know anymore, this was a show where those in attendance didn’t really care how long they’d been waiting to see Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit once it was over. It was so worth the wait!
The quality of Jason and his band this evening in a sold-out Manchester Apollo will certainly be eulogised shortly, but it would be an affront to the sound engineers on call tonight if their contribution to one of the shows of the year was ignored. The acoustics in this vast auditorium were impeccable; Jason’s soaring guitar solos were vivid, rousing affairs but so often when this is the focus, the vocals suffer. Not this time. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s last record, Reunions was described by yours truly as “eloquent storytelling at its best… this is a songwriter’s record and it is here where it shines”. This evening, thanks to the often overlooked sound folk, it was possible to hang on to every heartfelt lyric in this stirring setlist.
Opening with ‘What Have I Done to Help’ is certainly a way to set your stall out. Epic in pretensions but with a personal touch that aligns the audience completely, it’s a multi-coloured canvas of textures and tones. Isbell initially adds the tender acoustic melody but finds time to switch to a Gibson Les Paul for the rousing denouement which grips in its intensity. For songs that appear to be particularly personal, they also have a singalong quality and ’24 Frames’ introduces this theme of the evening, once again punctuated by towering guitar solos that never seem self-indulgent, instead furnishing these moments with emotion and pathos.
The first half of Reunions is Jason Isbell at his very finest and we get renditions of most of the highlights. ‘Only Children’ is tender and evocative and ‘Running with Our Eyes Closed’ is another of his singalong standards, but it is ‘Overseas’ that truly stands out as something very special. Musically elegiac initially, the song is punctuated by at least three graceful guitar solos that add some thrilling grandeur to the sobriety of this magnificent song. The crowd are certainly appreciative of these masterful chapter breaks.
From this point, there is a tad more variety in terms of the source of the tracks performed. There’s an opportunity for Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ guitarist Sadler Vaden to take centre stage with an immense performance of ‘Honeysuckle Blue’, providing the opportunity for Isbell to spar with his colleague to create some vast, widescreen soundscapes. The audience are on impeccable form throughout; the quieter moments on tracks like ‘Speed Trap Town’ and ‘Elephant’ illicit tender contributions adding a lovely warm hum to proceedings but there’s always a foot-stomper never far away and ‘Flying Over Water’ takes us into the encore which concludes with the raucous but always cultured ‘Super 8’ and the biggest singalong of the evening.
Photos & Images by Iain Fox