Opening for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit Friday night, Lucinda Williams seated herself in front of the microphone and apologized to the crowd for not being able to play the guitar or dance around. “But I can still sing,” she added, drawing whoops and hollers from the audience at Red Butte Gardens Amphitheatre. In some ways, this set the tone for the night: maybe the return to live musical performances wasn’t everything we hoped it would be, but we’ll take it gladly.
Lucinda Williams is touring again after suffering a stroke last year, which, as a testament to her wits and grit, she was ready to joke about. “I just got out of rehab,” she said. “But not that kind of rehab.” Her humor visibly eased the crowd, who were ready to sink into their seats and make the most out of the long-awaited return of the Red Butte Garden Outdoor Concert Series.
With that, Williams launched into “Joy,” from her 1998 album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. William’s voice is more gravelly, deeper now—perhaps even more compelling than on the original studio recording—all earth and heartbreak. “Drunken Angel,” too, a song from that same album, also struck a deeper chord performed live than it might have otherwise.
Williams was not the only one making a big return. After taking a season off, even the regular Red Butte goers were rusty but happy to be back. Even before the music started, energy was high. “Hello fellow concert goers!” our neighbors on the grass greeted as they plopped into their chairs, twisting around to face us and gush about Williams and Isbell. My companion had never heard of Isbell, but that did not deter our new friends. “You’re in for such a treat! It’s a perfect way to start off the season after these last 18 months.”
That celebratory energy was everywhere. Williams performed a version of “Take Me To The River” that had people clapping, dancing, rising out of their seats. During the song, a woman in a fringe denim jacket, paisley pants and a Stetson hat took to dancing through the rows of people and swinging around a whirring bubble-making machine.
The joy of the return was made only brighter by the contrast of the decidedly Nashville, emotional heaviness of the music. Williams did not back away from the personal as the night went on, using her struggle with depression to set up the song “Big Black Train,” “big black train, big black train / I don’t wanna get on board that big black train,” a deep, rhythmic number from her 2020 album Good Souls Better Angels.
Not everything about the return of the concert series went off without a hitch, either. For those looking to buy concessions, card readers were down and only cash sales were accepted. When you can bring a cooler full of your own food and drinks to the show, that isn’t exactly a dealbreaker, and it didn’t appear to ruin anyone’s good time.
Jason Isbell was likewise gracious as he took the stage, praising the beauty of the venue and even thanking Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall for allowing musicians to perform in her town. Songs from Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s latest album, Reunions (2020), featured heavily throughout the night. The track “Dreamsicle,” played early in the evening’s set, captures and distills the nostalgic storytelling and thesis of the album in an understated way, with its string of childhood images and vignettes, from the standard and seemingly sweet, “A dreamsicle on a summer night / In a folding lawn chair / Witch’s ring around the moon / Better get home soon,” to the devastating, “New sneakers on a high school court / And you swore you’d be there / My heart breaking through the springtime / Breaking in June.”
Isbell, too, remarked on the personal significance of the songs, some of which draw inspiration from his battle with alcoholism and eventual sobriety. The driving, pristine guitar rhythms breathed new life into songs like Never Gonna Change, a ditty from Isbell’s days with the Drive-By Truckers (his former band who performed on that same stage two nights later in the pouring rain). The band likewise lends the stirring backbone to the plaintive “What’ve I Done To Help,” in which Isbell laments his own decisions and the state of society.
That’s not to say it was all a soul-wrenching look into past actions. “Be Afraid,” a rock anthem from Reunions, is more hopeful and forward-looking with the lively support from the band, who had people on their feet and belting along with the chorus. After the final chords of the song faded, Isbell leaned into the microphone, overlooking the crowd and declared, “That was fun!”
Jason Isbell stands well on his own, too, (if his multiple successful solo albums weren’t proof enough of that already) with the aching ballad “If We Were Vampires” from the band’s album The Nashville Sound (2017). At the end of the night, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit returned to the stage for a soulful, string-plucking encore of “St. Peter’s Autograph” from the Reunions album. Neither song left a dry eye in the house (or on the lawn, rather).
They closed out the show with one more encore, “Super 8” (Southeastern, 2013). Looking around at the crowd, the effect of the more raucous, southern rock closer was restorative. Or, maybe, that was the cumulative results of a night filled with a little regret, a little heartbreak and a little hope—just what we needed to trigger a collective catharsis after the last 18 months.
Tickets are on sale to other shows for the Red Butte Outdoor Concert Series website, including Travis Tritt on Aug. 6 and Wilco and Sleater-Kinney on Aug. 8. See the full Red Butte summer lineup and Salt Lake’s guide on how to Red Butte.