Some friends, loyal colleagues and family have been nice enough to ask me in the last fortnight what I’m ‘doing’ at the Fringe this year. To which I’ve replied: nothing. Nada. Not a single thing. Zilcho.
And, relaxing with a couple of bandmates and a pint of the amber nectar in the White Horse as other people’s friends, loyal colleagues and family were shovelled in and out of the back room which, on 1st October, will be Tribute to Venus Carmichael’s for the whole evening, I felt incredibly okay with that.
Anyway, enough about me. Imagine instead that you’re rising new country/rock musician Jason Isbell, booked into the Liquid Rooms for two nights running in the middle of August. You step out for a pre-gig bit of fresh air, and you’re engulfed in the madness that is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe: acres of railings plastered with posters of desperately gurning stand-ups; thronging crowds of confused Japanese tourists, fire-eaters and shouty posh boys with fliers; and the steady grind of gridlocked traffic, all trying to get somewhere, anywhere, where there isn’t a tour bus parked in the way. It must have been a relief for the poor chap to dive into the sweaty fug of the Liquid Rooms, and his own gig.
A genial onstage presence, Isbell had a nice line in amused bemusement at the carnivalesque maelstrom he had found himself in. ‘This is muiscal improv,’ he announced, prior to launching into another well-rehearsed number with his small but tight band (drums, bass, second guitar and keys/accordion). ‘Actually, there’s a reason why most musical improv’s free.’
I had first encountered Isbell through Jools Holland’s Later… and liked him enough to look him up on Youtube. For those of you, like me, raised to associate country with rhinestones, cheesy grins and a particular type of fake sincerity, his music’s nothing like that: though the melodies clearly owe a debt to the country tradition, the storytelling and songcraft in numbers like ‘Cover Me Up,’ and ’24 Frames’ remind me of Springsteen at his best, but without the bombast. Switching between Les Paul and acoustic for some numbers, Isbell showed he was no mere strummer, with both he and the other guitarist using slide on occasion as an extra texture.
In terms of material, fortunately for me he drew heavily on his last two albums, ‘South Eastern,’ and ‘Something More Than Free,’ with highlights the two songs, mentioned in the last paragraph, plus ‘Stockholm,’ ‘Flying Over Water,’ and ‘If It Takes A Lifetime.’ An encore of ‘Elephant’ and ‘Super 8,’ went down a storm with the enthusiastic, crowded-to-the rafters audience, who were noticeably singing along to the more recent songs. From the look of the crowd – twenty-somethings and up – Isbell has a growing fan base, and if he can keep playing killer gigs like this, it’s only going to get bigger.
It was no mean feet to fill the Liquid Rooms to the brim – twice – with all the other competing attractions, but he and his Alabama bandmates were definitely who everyone there wanted to see. ‘You be careful,’ he admonished us, sending us into a night full of Fringe tomfoolery.
Quite right Jason. There’s a whole lot of real clowns out there.