"But I sobered up and got off that stuff, forever this time" sings Jason Isbell mid-way through a thrilling one hour forty five minute set at The Olympia Theatre. The words and sentiment are from Cover Up, the opening track on his breakthrough album Southeastern, and don’t go unnoticed by large numbers in the audience, generating a warm response. The autobiographical song speaks of a life changing turning point for Isbell and not coincidentally the beginning of his ascension to his rightful position as the stand out songwriter of his generation. He’s travelled quite a journey from his initial introduction to Dublin audiences at a crammed Whelan’s eleven years ago as the young wildman in Drive By Truckers, complete with a bottle of Jack Daniels on hand and an attitude to match. Further drunken escapes in Dublin, as recalled by him this evening, include ending up in a drunk woman’s apartment with keyboard player and cohort Derry De Borja, having been locked out of their hotel and seriously fearing they might not get out of the apartment alive. Water under the bridge now for the sober and extremely fit looking Isbell who takes the stage this evening with his loyal and trusted comrades (whom he individually introduces on four occasions during the performance), Jimbo Hart (bass), Chad Gamble (drums), Sadler Vaden (guitar) and Derry De Borja (keyboards).
He’s back in town barely six months after his last visit to Dublin where he performed at Bord Gais Theatre on stage with John Prine and his wife Amanda Shires. The anticipation at the Olympia this evening is palpable with Isbell on a purple patch with his current album The Nashville Sound striking gold on the Billboard Country at No.1 and No.4 in the Billboard Top 200 album charts. No mean achievement given some of the politically charged content on the album which would normally alienate the somewhat conservative Country music market.
Kicking off the evening’s entertainment is North Carolina’s Tift Merritt, an artist not unknown in Ireland having performed a number of times previously. Notwithstanding that, she is noticeably moved by the positive reaction to her set only a couple of songs in, with pin drop silence during her deliveries and requests shouts from early on. ‘I really can’t believe you actually know some of my songs, I’m moving here’ she jokes. Switching between acoustic guitar, electric guitar and piano her set includes her signature songs Stray Papers, Good Hearted Man and Travelling Alone. Responding to a request from the audience she performs Another Country on piano, introducing the song with the comment that ‘it’s terrible being an American today, you all know what I’m talking about’. Closing her thirty five minute set with The Feel of The World from her See You On The Moon album, I find myself scratching my head to recall a support act, particularly performing solo, that has earned such a positive audience response from a Dublin audience in recent years.
Twenty minutes later and Isbell is on stage with his crack 400 Unit and from the opener Anxiety from his latest album, to his memorable final encore of Tom Petty’s American Girl you’re left in no doubt that you’re witnessing a musician and band at the top of their game. Great sound, striking stage lighting and a band that certainly live up to their billing by performing very much as a unit, note perfect and collectively as tight as you could imagine. Isbell, to his credit, never plays the same set list at successive shows, varying both the content and the order so the element of surprise always remains, unlike other artists who robotically follow the same listing show after show. Last of My Kind, Tupelo, White Man’s World and a cracking Cumberland Gap from Nashville Sound all feature together with the gorgeous If We Were Vampires. 24 Frames and Something More Than Free from the album of the same name also get an airing. Stockholm and Travelling Alone from Southeastern are also included with Isbell explaining that unknowingly both himself and Tift Merritt both recorded songs titled Travelling Alone around the same time and noting that she had played her rendition earlier. Decoration Day, his classic from the Drive By Trucker days, is recognisable from the first few chords and the closing number and another Trucker’s anthem Never Gonna Change brings the house down, extended by a couples of minutes compliments of a sizzling guitar duel between Isbell and Sadler Vaden. Elephant is possibly the most striking and painful song in Isbell’s catalogue and is played as the first of two encores. Leading in to it on acoustic guitar before being joined by De Borja on keyboards Isbell’s delivery is goose bumps inducing and further evidence of an artist that has the talent to create both uplifting and heart wrenching material. The final number as previously mentioned is appropriately Tom Petty’s American Girl and with the calibre of musicians on stage it’s no surprise that they absolutely nail it.
Ten minutes after the stage has been vacated and the stewards are trying to clear the venue you can sense that a huge number of punters are stunned by what they have just witnessed and the expression ‘gig of the year’ seems to echo around the hall. Gig of the year. Who am I to argue?
After all the man is absolutely on fire!
Review and photos by Declan Culliton