The best thing about being a fan of Jason Isbell at this point in time is that you get to witness an artist fully coming into his own as a singer, songwriter and performer.
Much has been made of the great personal strides Isbell made on the way to the creation of his latest album, Southeastern--the turn toward sobriety, the new marriage--and while all that is great, it wouldn't mean as much to his fans if the music suffered on the way to his personal salvation.
Quite the contrary, Isbell came up with some of the best songs of his career on Southeastern, and judging by his performance at sold-out State Room Thursday night, Isbell is reaching new heights as a live performer as well.
The set leaned heavily on Southeastern, a treat after only a few of the new songs made their way into his set closing the Utah Arts Festival earlier this summer. And he didn't skimp on songs from his earlier solo work, or his years in the Drive-By Truckers, while still repeatedly noting how great it was to have an audience who were game for the new songs, not just the old favorites.
Isbell and his band The 400 Unit came out rocking with one of the best of the new tunes, "Flying Over Water," leading into a couple of excellent tracks from his 2011 Here We Rest album, "Tour of Duty" and "Go It Alone." "Decoration Day" from his Truckers days gave Isbell his first chance to break out his slide-guitar skills--something that thankfully would reappear a couple times during the show. In fact, throughout the show, watching Isbell and 400 Unit guitarist Sadler Vaden trade guitar fireworks was a blast, each pushing the other to incredible places on their respective solos.
After another from Here We Rest, Isbell's cover of Candi Staton's "Heart on a String," he and his band launched into a long run through songs from Southeastern. and that proved the best part of an overwhelmingly excellent show. The delicate "Live Oak" led into the largely acoustic "Different Days." "Cover Me Up" followed, a scorching romantic stunner that led into "Relatively Easy." "Traveling Alone" segued into his emotional narrative of a friend suffering from cancer, "Elephant," wrapping up a six-song stint of amazing songs that all hit the public's ears for the first time just a few months ago.
That's some ballsy set-selection, and it totally worked to the band's advantage. Isbell and Co. were clearly engaged in the proceedings, whether delivering a tender ballad or full-blown rocker, and the audience was right there with them.
The final push bounced through Isbell's catalog, from the Truckers' "Never Gonna Change" to his award-winning "Alabama Pines," "Goddamn Lonely Love" to the accordion-filled "Codeine." "Outfit" and "Super 8" ended his set before an encore that included a jammed-out "Danko/Manuel" and one of the best Rolling Stones covers I've heard, a ripping take on "Can't You Hear Me Knocking?" that again showcased Isbell's guitar chops.
A brilliant night all around, led by a man who seemed happier than ever on stage. it comes through in his music, and it's only fitting considering how happy he's been making his audiences for years.