Live Review: Jason Isbell, Eilen Jewell

4 April 2016 | 3:08 pm | Ross Clelland

"His songs are stories of imperfect little worlds."

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Allowing for his honeyed Alabama drawl, Jason Isbell somehow transcends that horrid country pigeonhole. In his black work shirt, he's a craftsman, a tradesman rather than cowboy or truck driver. Maybe more southern Springsteen than a guy in a big hat.

Eilen Jewell is more old school. She's one of those slightly broken honkytonk angels with songs about troubled minds, Heartache Boulevards and trains. Lots of trains. She also has Jerry Miller — black hat, Ray-Bans at night and the grizzled visage of a bloke who's being spooling out these high-plains guitarlines since Jesus played fullback for Jerusalem. There's a timeless sincerity to what they do.

Last tour here, on the wave of the confessional Southeastern album's success, Isbell's band The 400 Unit — named after a mental ward, naturally — were a little restrained, reflecting the record's tone. Now, they more freely run through various Isbell eras — the big southern rock of Never Gonna Change from his Drive-By Truckers times (Derry deBorja's piano accordion provides Codeine's snarky swing), through the sweet melancholy of Traveling Alone, to Something More Than Free's more expansive work ethic.   

The singer is similarly settled. He loves his wife, dedicating the tender Cover Me Up for her "…even though she's not here". He means it. His songs are stories of imperfect little worlds. You believe the tunnel vision of Speed Trap Town, or the weight and waste in Children Of Children that closes the main set. 

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The mood swings continue as Elephant's cancer battle tires not just the patient, and then the big messy bar brawl of Super 8 with The Stones playing on the jukebox in the background. You're watching a supremely tight and loose band, and a songwriter who's maybe still growing in confidence to his already extraordinary abilities.