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Concert review: Jason Isbell at Utah Arts Festival

by on June 24, 2013


Just as Jason Isbell’s latest release, Southeastern, is the sound of a fresh beginning for the newly sober, newly married singer/songwriter, the man’s headlining show Sunday at the Utah Arts Festival had the air of an introduction to new fans.

With only 75 minutes to play with–a brief interlude in terms of live shows for the former Drive-by Trucker–Isbell managed to deliver many of the new songs never heard during his past Salt Lake City visits, while touching on enough older songs from his 10 or so years in the public eye that longtime fans had no reason to complain.

Joined by his band the 400 Unit, featuring new guitarist Sadler Vaden, Isbell kicked off with one of Southeastern‘s killers, “Stockholm Syndrome.” He settled in with “Go It Alone” and followed with one of his Truckers songs–“Decoration Day,” featuring a stellar slide-guitar solo from Isbell and an ingratiating introduction: “I couldn’t have picked a better night to come play some rock and roll for you,” Isbell said as he launched into into the song, and he was right.

With a decent-sized crowd for a 9:45 p.m. Sunday night show in Salt Lake City, Isbell bounced between unveiling songs from the new album and appeasing Truckers’ fans with selections from his years in that band. Early on, the set was heavy on the solo songs, with new ones like “Traveling Alone” and “Live Oak” sprinkled among older favorites like “Tour of  Duty” and “Codeine.”

About halfway in, Isbell and his band really caught fire. After performing Southeastern‘s opener, “Cover Me Up,” and making it one of the best songs of the night, Isbell thanked the crowd for letting him run through new, largely acoustic songs, before announcing it was time to turn up the electricity.

The driving “Super 8,” one of the lightest moments on Southeastern–thanks to lyrics like “I don’t want to die in a Super 8 motel, just because someone’s evening didn’t go so well”–led into an unexpected, and unexpectedly great, cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?”

After that treat, Isbell and band closed the show in a blaze of excellent performances, starting with what is the signature song–to date for the 34-year-old artist, “Outfit.” The narrative from father to son remains a stirring, soulful song even though Isbell’s been performing it for years, and the segue into one of Southeastern‘s best, “Flying Over Water,” served to show how consistently excellent Isbell’s songwriting has been through the years.

A closing salvo of “Dress Blues,” “Alabama Pines” and another Truckers’ tune, “Never Gonna Change,” sealed the deal on a memorable 15-song blast through Isbell’s catalog. The 400 Unit sounded great behind him, with special props aimed at guitarist Vaden for his fiery contribution, and Isbell showed that he’s just as blazing a live presence as a sober frontman as he was with a buzz on–his voice has never sounded better. Here’s hoping we get a full-length tour stop while Isbell continues to tour in support of Southeastern. I’d love to hear how those songs gain momentum as the band gets comfortable playing them, and as Isbell continues to win new fans along the way as I’m sure he did Sunday night.

(Atrocious photo by yours truly)

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