Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Live from Alabama
(Lightening Rod/Thirty Tigers)
Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars
The timing of ex-Drive-By Trucker Isbell’s first full concert album — there was a previous live EP — couldn’t have been better. He just won the Americana Music Awards and Honors song of the year for “Alabama Pines,” and his 400 Unit backing trio — here augmented by a three piece horn section for a few tunes — is in fighting form.
Proudly captured raw with no overdubs during two performances from his titular home state, this 72 minute gig is everything a live album should be. It’s a cross section of songs from Isbell’s three studio releases performed with the heightened intensity and emotion that a packed club brings to already solid material.
“Alabama Pines” gets a more intense reading with Isbell’s electric guitar replacing the studio version’s acoustic. The crowd response is natural and lively as they sing the “whoo-whoo-whoo”s on the chorus. Isbell resurrects the EP’s magnificent “Danko/Manuel” in a dramatic eight minute, horn enhanced reading that is this disc’s centerpiece. The mid-tempo tunes mix predominantly melancholy melodies with moody swampy rock, potent singer/songwriter observations and a gritty country vibe.
Isbell’s stories generally concern blue collar working class aspirations and frustrations, concepts he clearly understands firsthand. His emotional singing has always been vital and perfect for his lyrics but it — along with the playing — is kicked up a few notches here. A closing version of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane” provides a chance to rock out on guitar as Isbell pays tribute to one of his most obvious influences. Everything connects emotionally and musically in front of an enthusiastic crowd on one of the year’s best and most vibrant live albums.