Jason Isbell capped his Red Butte set (pre-encore) Thursday night with one of his old standards — “Never Gonna Change” — a song he recorded way back in 2004 with the Drive-by Truckers’ album “The Dirty South.”
And while Isbell is known for the truth in his lyrics, he most definitely has changed.
The first time I saw a Jason Isbell play solo was back in 2008, a free show up at Snowbird. Back then he as a pudgy 29-year-old, a renowned songwriter already, fresh from a split with the Truckers with a penchant for Jack Daniels.
In the ensuing years, I’ve seen him play 10 times, and each time it seems he has added a new weapon: His guitar work is even more pristine, the turns of phrase more clever and profound, the whole act more dialed-in each time.
Thursday night was no exception as Isbell, sporting a thin beard and gray around the temples, was (like we all are) a little older, but also more confident and appeared to be enjoying performing (which hasn’t always seemed to be the case).
Isbell’s band, The 400 Unit — Sadler Vaden on guitar, Jimbo Hart on bass, Derry DeBorja on keyboards and Chad Gamble on drums — couldn’t possibly have been tighter. The whole thing was like a new Mercedes that just rolled off the assembly line, polished to perfection, purring and immaculate. Granted, that means there aren’t a lot of surprises, but it’s still awfully fun to take for a spin.
Isbell opened the show with “Anxiety” and “Hope the High Road,” a pair of high energy tracks powered by fiery guitar.
The rest of the evening floated between his more recent hits, like “Alabama Pines,” and his Drive-by Truckers catalog, including bringing out “Danko/Manuel” — a song he doesn’t play frequently, starting out plodding and deliberate and building to a guitar-packed climax — and “Decoration Day.”
He brought out one new track on the night, the fifth song of the set, called “Overseas,” which featured melancholy guitar and one of Isbell’s quintessential Southern Springsteen lines: “This used to be a ghost town until even the ghosts got out.”
The crowd turned his tender, sad song “If We Were Vampires” into a singalong, joining in on the chorus, “It's knowing that this can't go on forever / Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone / Maybe we'll get 40 years together / But one day I'll be gone / Or one day you'll be gone.”
Perhaps the peak of the evening was his heartfelt rendition of “Last of My Kind,” followed up by “Maybe It’s Time,” a track Isbell wrote for the move “A Star Is Born.”
Isbell closed the show with a pair of covers, the first a true-to-its-source version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” followed by Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well,” which he turned into a remarkable musical showcase for the band (and still got the audience out by just after 9 p.m. to relieve the sitter).
It was, on the whole, proof that no matter how much we want to claim that we’re “Never Gonna Change,” that can be for the better.