Jason Isbell made his return to the State Room on Thursday, although in Salt Lake City — which Isbell later credited in a tweet as a "ridiculously underrated rock town" — this barely registers as news. Since leaving his spot in the Drive-By Truckers half a dozen years ago, Isbell has made more visits to the Wasatch Front than an Eastern Conference NBA team.
In June, he performed the Sunday night, sunset show at the Utah Arts Festival, his first Salt Lake performance in support of his new album, "Southeastern." Thursday marked the first time he played those songs, many inspired by his road to sobriety, in a more intimate setting, which is where these types of songs belong. They shouldn’t catch a breeze and ride away and disperse. They should bounce off walls, pinging around a room, hitting a listener square in the chest, over and over.
This is going to be a positive review. Like many Isbell loyalists, I have broken up and fallen in love to his songs. "If there’s one thing I can’t take," he sings in "Codeine," an all-too relatable song from a previous album, "it’s the sound a woman makes about five seconds after her heart begins to break."
Isbell unloaded on Thursday’s audience. It speaks to his effect on listeners that he was able to open the show with a new song, "Flying Over Water," and that the audience was just as eager for him to dig deeper into the catalogue for a good while before returning to the monumentally popular "Southeastern." The set was wide-ranging, like any other Isbell show, delving into Truckers hits including "Decoration Day," "Outfit" and "Goddamn Lonely Love," as well as songs from his other albums as a solo artist. An encore capping cover of the Rolling Stones’ "Can’t You Hear Me Knocking" provided the ultimate rock and roll jolt. But what was fresh, and really brought Isbell’s act to a better, higher place, was the new stuff.
A Tribune colleague at Thursday’s show leaned in to me and said, "This is the best I’ve ever seen him."
It was his sixth Isbell show in recent years.
The Jason Isbell that is on the road now, in Jackson tonight, Big Sky, Mont., tomorrow and Missoula on Sunday, is a cleaner, sharper one. The best version of himself to date. Credit his newfound sobriety, or his equally talented new wife, the Texas fiddler Amanda Shires, or just the wisdom gleaned from bouncing around the Southern rock scene for nearly 15 years. Probably all of them.
In all, Isbell played nine of the songs from "Southeastern," but none were better than when his tremendous backing band, The 400 Unit, stepped into the shadows, leaving Isbell and his guitar. The autobiographical "Cover Me Up," which details a fall from an 80-mile-per-hour lifestyle to sobriety and passionate love brought the room to a halt.
"But I sobered up," he sings, "and I swore off that stuff forever, this time."
Isbell, who has become an NPR fixture of late, has always been known for his storytelling. "Decoration Day" is the tale of rival families and the blood sport that destroys them both; "Outfit" is a father’s humble advice to his son. But the songs from "Southeastern" carry more weight these days, and the sincerity bleeds out of Isbell with every soulful lyric.
At one point, Isbell acknowledged to the crowd that it was nice to have new songs that people actually wanted to hear, and didn’t just offer an opportunity for patrons to run to the bathroom.
Three songs into the night, though, Isbell turned to one that may have foreshadowed his mid-career renaissance. From "Go It Alone," a highlight of the studio album that preceded "Southeastern," he sang, "It’s realizing just how close you’ve come to death and rearranging accordingly."
— Bill Oram
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