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Concert review: Singer-songwriter Jason Isbell steps up for a receptive first-time Vegas audience

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Singer-songwriter Jason Isbell performs before a lively crowd in the House of Blues at the Mandalay Bay on Thursday, March 16, 2017, in Las Vegas.
Photo: L.E. Baskow

Three and a half stars

Jason Isbell March 16, House of Blues

Midway through “Elephant,” the first song in his encore at the House of Blues on Thursday night, singer-songwriter Jason Isbell stopped himself, first appearing to have forgotten the words as the audience kept singing in his place, and then halting the song altogether, explaining that he was too overcome with emotion to continue. “This song is making me too sad,” he said, explaining that usually after playing the stark, death-focused song, he’d have a cigarette, but he quit smoking a month ago. For those fans singing along, it might have been disappointing not to hear the rest of the song, but the moment was still an endearing reminder of Isbell’s authenticity, the kind of spontaneous interaction that makes a concert feel like a unique experience.

Jason Isbell at House of Blues

Isbell spent the entire evening connecting with the audience, a much larger and more engaged crowd than usually shows up in Vegas for alt-country and Americana acts. He and his backing band The 400 Unit ran through 90-plus minutes of songs mostly drawn from Isbell’s two most recent albums, in many cases delivering livelier and fuller versions than on record. For his first time in Las Vegas, Isbell joked about resident performers Billy Idol (marveling at guitarist Steve Stevens’ equipment set up next to the stage, for Idol’s performance the next night) and Steely Dan (whom his wife, fellow singer-songwriter Amanda Shires, apparently hates) and thanked the audience for choosing him over Britney Spears.

Highlights of the set included energetic versions of catchy, twangy songs “Stockholm” and “Codeine” (with keyboardist Derry DeBorja wielding an accordion), the kind of music that could be all over country radio if the format was just a little less rigid. And although it’s been nearly a decade since Isbell left the Drive-By Truckers to go solo, his work with DBT remains some of his best material, so it was great to hear four of his DBT songs, including the heartbreaking “Outfit.” Following the aborted “Elephant,” Isbell closed with DBT’s “Never Gonna Change,” a rocking, anthemic end to his welcome first Vegas appearance. Let’s hope for more in the future.

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Josh Bell

Josh Bell is the film editor for Las Vegas Weekly, where he's been writing movie and TV reviews since 2002. ...

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