Much like a roll of dice at a craps table, a concert in a casino is often a gamble. For Jason Isbell's Saturday night show at WinStar World Casino, the ups and downs one might experience during a white-knuckled hour of gambling were there.
For the most part, WinStar artists are older than the 37-year old Isbell or the 31-year old Chris Young, who performed on Friday night. Legendary acts such as Dolly Parton, ZZ Top, Don Henley and Charley Pride understandably attract an audience that skews wiser in age. Some WinStar fans just want to sit and listen, then politely clap when applause is called for.
On nights like Isbell's, however, an awkward dance takes place between artist, audience and venue. When a bonafide guitar hero such as Isbell triumphantly shreds the ever-loving life out of "Decoration Day," a dramatic highlight from his days as a Drive by Truckers wonderboy, you want to get rowdy.
You want to move; you want to pump your fist or wave the metal-approved devil horn hands in appreciation. But you've been glued to an unforgiving metal banquet hall chair. And you'll probably get shouted down by a fellow attendee or an usher anyway, so what's the point?
But such effort was worth it as the set progressed, physical discomfort be damned.
Isbell and his stellar veteran band, complete with his native-Texan wife, singer, songwriter and fiddle player Amanda Shires, simply did not miss a single authoritative beat.
Fellow critically-lauded country outlaws Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton have rightfully won press and growing fan bases, but Isbell, the winner of two Grammy awards, has been leading this charge for years.
As if to highlight that point, he ignored songs from his seminal 2013 record Southeastern and mixed in some slightly older cuts with a good chunk of his chart-topping 2015 Something More Than Free album.
From that most recent album, Isbell offered the tune that netted one of his Grammy trophies, "24 Frames," and the title track, which featured gorgeous interplay between his lead guitar and Shires' skillful fiddle. But Isbell made sure no one Saturday night forgot that his 2011 record, Here We Rest, is packed with stunners. The slow-burning "Go It Alone," along with the country shuffling duo of "Alabama Pines," and "Codeine" gave a back-to-back showcase of how Isbell spins twangy yarns while avoiding cliché and capturing vivid, uniquely individual moments in time.
The one song from Southeastern Isbell performed was "Cover Me Up," the song he famously wrote for Shires before they were married, but just after he kicked his well-chronicled addiction to alcohol. It's a gorgeous, epic showstopper and when Shires is on stage with him for it, the warm fuzzies were impossible to avoid.
The crowd went wild as Isbell sang, "I sobered up, I swore off that stuff, forever this time" -- an exhilarating example of an adoring audience wanting only the best for its hero.
As he closed out his just-over-an-hour-long set with a cover of Neil Young's socio-politically charged "Ohio," the short set-length -- a common practice for casino shows -- felt like being dealt a bogus poker hand.
But looking back on the evening, it wasn't hard to realize we came out winners.