Jason Isbell & John Moreland

January 22, 2015
O2 Forum Kentish Town

Singer, guitar, chair, spotlight.  Simple?  Yes.  Simplistic?  Not a chance.  Without distractions, the focus was the hypnotic timbre of John Moreland’s voice – rich, beautifully melancholic and crackling with emotion.  Think a balladeering Bruce Springsteen with a dash of Chuck Ragan.  The 30 year old was largely unknown to the London crowd, but you could have heard a pin drop at the front of the sumptuous art deco auditorium – a sure sign of respect.

Moreland’s stories of broken dreams and lost love were cut with a hint of the blues and a sense of place – even without 2008’s majestic Endless Oklahoma Sky, songs like Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars transported the room to the Midwest for a night.  Simply enthralling.

There was a real buzz about Jason Isbell’s London show; even the touts were out in a way you rarely see these days.  The fans that made it in to the packed theatre were treated to an electric show that was well worth the wait.

The band, The 400 Unit, was tight and together they played just the right kind of music for the UK scene; evocative Americana with a Southern rock riff.  Isbell mined country themes and scenes but avoided the overpowering twang and bombastic swagger of some of his Nashville contemporaries.

Initially letting the music do the talking, the place came alive when Isbell revealed his easy wit and boyish charm – a wry cultural observation here, an Oasis impression there. He acknowledged his previous demons and it’s clear that the sober, family life suits him. Now he’s leaving the darkness to the songs; stand-outs included The Life You Chose, an addictive tune about addiction, and the plaintive 24 Frames. The set highlight was in the encore; Elephant, a heart-wrenchingly frank song about terminal cancer.  Mesmerising.

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