You may be among the relative handful in the room tonight at the Enmore Theatre. You may be among the larger number disappointed they didn’t get a ticket. Or maybe you wonder what the fuss is about. For all of you, Wind Back Wednesday does some explaining or backgrounding or reinforcing.
In 2016 – the third time this reviewer saw them, the second time reviewing – there was something special going on. Again. No point wasting time preparing the ground for it, let’s just find out.
Enmore Theatre, April 3, 2016
TO BE ABLE TO LEAVE a song as good – what am I saying, “good”? I mean as devastating and brilliant - as Elephant to the encore and not have us think beforehand that we were missing out on anything is something impressive.
This is a song about cancer and death and friendship that hurts to the core without having to lay on anything florid musically or vocally. A song that is unsentimental almost to the point of brutal: "she said Andy you're taking me home, but I knew she planned to sleep alone/I’d carry her to bed, sweep up the hair from her floor." But one that leaves you pretending you’ve got something in your eye and grateful the room is darkened, each and every damn time you hear it: "there's one thing that's real clear to me, no one dies with dignity/we just try to ignore the elephant somehow, somehow."
If Jason Isbell had left for the night, heading straight to the airport home at the end of his 90-minute set, no one would have felt deprived for time, performance or songs. We’d still have been talking about how Cover Me Up, another of his bona fide standards-to-be, seemed a peak of the night on its own. How a song written for and about his wife (Amanda Shires, not on this tour, her violin and vocals missed) but about as universal as any declaration of commitment, devotion and salvation as you’ll find, began solo on acoustic, slowly accumulated band members and climaxed as a kind of majestic blues gospel.
We’d also have talked about how his guitarist, Sadler Vaden, with longish straight hair centred parted, and a boldly patterned shirt, looks like he may have stepped out of a Big Star recording session in Memphis 1972, while the neatly cut and slicked Isbell, in his customary black-on-black, looks like he may have been backing Johnny Cash a decade earlier.
And how the music could in some ways be said to sit in between those pillars with a whole-of-the-South approach: some guitar rock with soul swing and tunes galore riding on bunched up attitude (seen for one in Never Gonna Change), but also an affection for things homespun that may not be pure country but certainly has had a tumble in the hay with pure country on more than one randy occasion.
Or how if you slip in an accordion and three backing vocalists the territory shifts west of Memphis and south of Arkansas, though Mr Cash would have recognised the subject matter from "One of my friends has taken her in and given her codeine".
We most certainly would have been talking about how good Isbell’s voice sounded: a mid-tenor that is neither husky nor pristine but sounds experienced and also youthful. And how when he sang Speed Trap Town – from Springsteen via Adams (Ryan) – it really was, to borrow a line from another song, something that "would make a Georgia man cry".
Cry? Dammit, why did you have to bring Elephant up again?