It seems harsh to describe someone who has been working in music for more than twenty years as a relative unknown. But Jason Isbell's is not a name many UK music fans would know, despite multiple awards in the United States, writing a song for Bradley Cooper's A Star is Born and a mainstream acting debut in Martin Scorcese's Killers of the Flower Moon. Not that this relative obscurity is obvious with the queue that snakes around Islington's Union Chapel on a mild January Sunday night. Tickets for this show are hot property and fellow musician and fan Frank Turner even joins the back of the long line to get a seat.
Waiting for the doors to open and the queue to finally start moving, I hear a German and American accent behind me. Sensing a chance to get an exotic story of long journeys to get to this rare show, I ask the couple how far they have come. "We live around the corner" is the disappointing answer. Franziska then admits she is only there for the venue. It is her partner Josh who is the big fan. Despite living nearby, they have never been to Union Chapel before, so I tell them that the first show there should be a shared experience for them and this will be special.
Franziska decides to stay and it is fair to say my promise lives up to the hype. Isbell's star has risen fast in the last few years, with a career that album after album has been getting more and more impressive. 2023's Weathervanes is one of the finest rock albums of this century. But it is also ten years since his 'breakthrough' solo release, Southeastern, and many of those tracks feature in tonight's stripped back set.
Under the wonderful and reverential high ceilings of Union Chapel, Isbell is spellbinding. His singing and playing is hugely impressive. But he also tells a good yarn. Anyone who follows him on X knows Isbell has a quick wit and can be hugely sarcastic with his detractors. Weaved in amongst the likes of Speed Trap Town, Strawberry Woman and the epic Overseas are hilarious stories featuring Bruce Springsteen, a 6 year old girl whose favourite song of his is a murder ballad (Live Oak) and how he once caused chaos in Sheffield, Alabama by posting that he was about to play Sheffield City Hall. He was actually touring the UK at the time and received a 3am phone call from a panicked Mayor of Sheffield, Alabama over fears of a large and frustrated gathering of expectant fans!
Across this solo set Isbell displays his Springsteen-esque ability to immerse you in both the wide open spaces of America and the claustraphobic world of hotels and motels ("The AC hasn't worked in 20 years, probably never made a single person cold" - Alabama Pines) alongside snapshots of people struggling with the day to day (King of Oklahoma). Storytelling like this always seems more romantic when it is about the United States. Rainy nights in Rochdale don't have the same magical allure.
This has been the second night of a quick visit to London for Isbell after picking up International Trailblazer at the UK Americana Music Awards. He may not be widely known here yet but that should definitely change as his trail continues to blaze. Isbell will return to the UK in November with a gig in Hammersmith. The Apollo is somewhere he could probably fill for two or three nights. It would be no surprise then, if Josh and Franziska are back and this time it won't be just for the venue.