Splendid Isolation (Amanda & Jason)

Whatever displacement activity occupying my time in this stretch of isolation is put to one side every night at 11 pm UK time to watch & listen to a tea-time concert from the home of Amanda Shires & her husband Jason Isbell where they are quarantined with their daughter Mercy, Amanda’s guitarist Seth Plemmons, his wife Kelly & Zeyke the dog. In the past month I’ve gladly accepted & enjoyed invitations to join favourite musicians like Richard Thompson & Kate Rusby in their living rooms but these daily “I So Lounging” sessions have become a much appreciated constant when you are living by the days. I’m in daily contact with family & friends but the best news we have is “I’m still here”. The opportunity to enjoy some good music, to listen in to good conversation by good people is a blessing. This weekend Jason reached out & got his band back together.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - Reunions – The Drift Record ShopJason Isbell & the 400 Unit have a new album, “Reunions”, slated for release on May 15th. There are three track available on the Y-tube & “What Have I Done To Help” is sounding more powerful each time I hear it. There will not be the usual promotional run for “Reunions”, the in-store record shop appearances, the national tour & even the Summer festivals may not happen. When Jason did gather the Unit from their respective isolation they chose to play a track from “Something More Than Free”. “24 Frames” is a staple of the band’s setlist & it rocks. This more living-room friendly acoustic version by musicians who are not going to play together for some time is a beauty. “This is how you make yourself call your mother & this is how you make yourself closer to your brother & remember him back when he was small enough to help you sing”. We’re all taking some time out to do that.

amanda shires john prine — Blog — Lindsey BestThe quality of the “I So Lounging” sessions has been uniformly high but new heights were reached on the day we heard of the sad passing of John Prine. John was a Great American Songwriter as well as a friend & mentor of both Amanda & Jason & on April 8th they performed “Angel From Montgomery”, “Clocks & Spoons”, a favourite of their daughter who loved her Uncle John, & “Illegal Smile” while sharing stories of times shared with him. It was obvious from the sigh at the beginning of this clip that Amanda was having a tough day & she did have to take time to compose herself. I was fine as between songs they shared affectionate memories & humorous  stories about their friend. John Prine’s songs are always honest & bitter-sweet & I must admit that halfway through “Illegal Smile” it was something more than dust in my eye that brought the tears.

Throughout this memorial & tribute I knew that I had come to the right place to think about & pay my own respects to a fine artist. I only know John Prine’s music but these people knew & loved him as a human being. I felt their loss & was grateful that they were taking the time to share their feelings with us. The following day a beautiful piece written by Jason appeared in the New York Times, further confirmation that none of the many obituaries & eulogies about John were more heartfelt than the performance I had witnessed on the previous evening. 

Amanda Shires joined by husband Jason Isbell for two Montana shows ...Alongside their own songs Amanda & Jason are taking the opportunity to cover some of their favourite songs. Jason sang fine versions of Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” & “Unknown Legend”, Amanda chose “Chelsea Hotel #2” & “Everybody Knows” from the Leonard Cohen songbook. Others have included Loudon Wainwright, a great reminder of how good a song the Allman Brothers’ “Melissa” is & a very a propos “Keep On Smiling” by Wet Willie. Last night (Sunday) I was introduced to Lennon Stella’s charming “Golf On TV”. We’ll go with Amanda’s take on Radiohead’s “High & Dry” because, after seeing her sing, play & talk to us daily for almost a month now, it showcases what an absolute talent she has & delight she is. All of the “I So Lounging” episodes can be found on the Amanda Shires channel on the Y-tube ( Episode 20 is the Prine tribute). I can only recommend that you check them out, I can only hope that they bring you as much pleasure as they have brought me.

While I’m here I’ll mention that Sadler Vaden, Jason’s trusty guitar partner in the 400 Unit has his own solo album. I had kind of guessed that Sadler had a bit of a thing for Tom Petty & “Anybody Out There” is an assured collection of modern American Rock. The more I hear the more I’m liking it.

OK, I have a couple of hours before tonight’s episode. Time to read a little more or to progress my game of “Civilization V” before settling down to enjoy whatever Amanda & Jason (not forgetting Seth & Kelly) want to bring into my living room for 45 minutes & to celebrate making it through another day. Stay safe & stay healthy everyone.

New Music From Jason Isbell

A great weekend for new music. Wilco give their album “Star Wars” away buckshee,  singles from Keith Richards, Public Image Ltd & Public Enemy. Over the coming days I’m sure that I’ll be returning to all of them. It may be a while before they hit the front of the queue because today (Saturday) this year’s (2015) most eagerly anticipated music came around. “Something More Than Free” is the new LP by Jason Isbell, the follow up to 2013’s “Southeastern”, a record that has given me so much pleasure since its release & continues to do so.

 

 

I won’t presume to tell you everything about the new record, it’s only been in the house for 12 hours for Jah’s sake. “Southeastern”, like all the best things, took its time to reveal its depths & its delights. I wrote about it here, struggled then to pick 3 songs & would possibly select 3 others if I did it all over again (I didn’t pick “Live Oak”. What was I thinking ?). “24 Frames” has been on the Y-tube for 6 weeks, it’s rock for & from the heartland, the most accessible track on the record & pretty, pretty good. Isbell was Artist of the Year at last year’s Americana Music Awards, his “Cover Me Up” won too. I have a problem with “Americana”, it seems to be no more than a catch-all, a marketing tool. You, & Bill Hicks, know what you should do if you’re in marketing…

 

 

After such an acclaimed LP, one instigated & inspired by some major, positive life changes, getting straight & getting married to Amanda Shires, it was always going to be interesting what came next. Those confessional, vulnerable, raw emotions can become contrived if you go to that well too often. On “Something More Than Free” he’s still writing about goddamn lonely love & life but his blue-collar characters are more than settling, they see a little light. Working with the same producer, Dave Cobb, there are musical similarities to “Southeastern”. At the moment tracks 5, “Children of Children”, 6, “The Life You Chose” & 7, the title song, have more expansive arrangements, not grandiose but substantial, played live they should be a little more raucous, both rockin’ & rollin’. I expect the more restrained offerings to catch my attention later. Man, I’m pleased to hear this record.

 

Jason Isbell’s music covers rock, country, blues, all that stuff. He served an apprenticeship at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, did time with the Drive-By Truckers, learned his trade. As a singer & a songwriter he is at the top of his game, comparable to Springsteen & Steve Earle when they were hitting that same good spot. These are the only 2 songs from the LP I can find on the Interwebs so here’s Jason & Amanda playing “Live Oak, the one that got away last time. On his 2013 visit to the UK he was playing small venues & I’ve just found out he has a gig in Manchester in January 2016. I’ll get on to that the first thing tomorrow.