If you tried to determine the musical style of an artist by the songs he covers during his live shows, Jason Isbell would have your head spinning in the best possible way.
Over the course of his sold-out show at The State Room Thursday night, Isbell and his band The 400 Unit broke up a stellar set of his own slightly countrified rock 'n' roll with takes on The Meters' "Hey Pocky Way," Tom Petty's "Even The Losers" (a song Isbell said kept him from killing himself as a high school kid) and Neil Young's "Like a Hurricane," delivered as a rousing show-closer. And during his own "Never Gonna Change," Isbell took the band into a couple of raucous verses of Jimi Hendrix's "Stone Free."
Expansive musical taste on that Isbell fellow, right? And remarkably, in the context of his own show, those covers showed how classics of American popular music have informed the Alabama native's own songwriting. Never during the course of the show did any of those covers feel intrusive. Rather, they were part of a naturally flowing set that was thrilling, for the most part, from beginning to end.
Naturally, the highlights came from Isbell's own catalog. The setlist relied heavily on songs from his excellent 2011 release Here We Rest, but he included enough of his older material, including a few of his songs from his years in the Drive-By Truckers, to satisfy longtime fans, as well as the newbies who jumped on board the Isbell bandwagon in the last 12 months.
Isbell kicked off the show with the one-two punch of "The Magician" from his 2007 album Sirens of the Ditch, and "Go It Alone" from Here We Rest before delving into one of his DBT now-classics, "Decoration Day," a song that not only revealed the emotional power Isbell has as a songwriter, but showcased some ripping slide guitar from the frontman, as well.
The breezy Here We Rest opener "Alabama Pines" sounded excellent, leading into The Meters cover and a mini-suite of Isbell's soldier songs with "Tour of Duty" and "Dress Blues."
The middle of the roughly 20-song set was where Isbell and his band truly caught fire. Back-to-back-back performances of "Outfit," "Codeine" and "Goddamn Lonely Love" collectively made for the show's highest moment for me, but then I think those songs are among the best penned in the last 10 years or so, not just by Isbell but by anyone. A buoyant take on "Heart on a String" after that troika lightened the mood a bit before the set-closing blast through "Never Gonna Change/Stone Free."
The encore started with just Isbell and an acoustic guitar on stage, performing a favorite from early in his career, "Thank God for the TVA" before the new "Daisy Mae" and Petty's "Even the Losers." With the full band back on stage, Isbell shut it down with a wicked take on Young's "Like a Hurricane."
Isbell is pretty much all business on stage, leading his charges through the set with only occasional stops to chat up the crowd. Thursday, he thanked the crowd often for cheering on his songs about often dark subject matter, encouraging them to have a good time even while he poured his heart into another great live performance.
I've seen Isbell enough to know that he delivers every time he gets on a stage; I can't imagine what a "bad" Jason Isbell show would look or sound like. Suffice to say, I don't think we'll ever see one in Salt Lake City, but we might see progressively bigger ones.