Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: Live From Alabama
How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.
The review of Blackberry Smoke's The Whippoorwill
(Southern Ground, 2012) provoked the comment: "The review sets up a bit of a straw man, since southern rock is alive and well in the hands of bands like the Drive-by Truckers and Jason Isbell...These guys did not come out of a vast wasteland.".
Well, indeed. And speaking of Jason Isbell, he and his new band The 400 Unit released the live recording, Live From Alabama which immediately fulfills the warrant of every live recording: to present the music as a living, breathing entity given a new face from the studio and to provide a recital of the better known songs by the artist. Isbell and company meet both requirements head on with this baker's dozen of finely crafted songs.
Isbell is Southern bred, his musical family settling in his native Alabama before its statehood in 1819. He was born in Greenhill, appropriately just north of Muscle Shoals close to the Tennessee state line. After emerging as a songwriter in 2001, Isbell joined The Drive By Truckers, appearing on the New West recordings Decoration Day (2003), The Dirty South (2004) and A Blessing and A Curse (2006), the former two providing several selections heard here.
Isbell's music is potently informed by both Robbie Robertson and The Band and Neil Young. I suppose that is stating the obvious. Isbells songs are are like Sherwood Anderson's "Book of Grotesques" Winesburg, Ohio (B.W. Huebsch, 1919). this concert is a short story cycle depicting not the Midwest, but the Deep South, deeper than Kentucky or Tennessee, richer than delta mud and blood. If the terrain trod by The Band in the '60s and '70s could be described as "Norman Rockwell, bad on the whiskey...," then Isbell's postage stamp of land can be heard as a meth-addled Willie Morris trying to find his paranoid way home.
Isbell's subjects are an extension of the Band's sepia-toned Americana blown into full digital color. The noble Caines of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," full of doomed pride and grit, transmogrify into Isbell's Lawsons in "Decoration Day," reducing an historic conflict between the states and brothers to a grimy conflict between neighbors, stubbornly fought, racked with futility. Isbell's Lawson protagonist, unlike the central figure of Neil Young's staggering "Powderfinger" is doomed to remain, but only barely, and for what? It is ruthless living.
Isbell cements is Band bona fides with his Trucker's contribution "Danko/Manuel," a lyrically dense homage to the first two Band casualties:
"Can you hear that singing? Sounds like gold.
Maybe I can hear poor Richard from the grave
Singin' where to reap and when to sow
When you've found another home you have to leave."
Another Trucker's song, "Outfit" plunges deeper into the myth of white poverty in the South:
"Don't call what you're wearing an outfit
Don't ever say your car is broke
Don't worry about losing your accent
A Southern Man tells better jokes
Have fun but stay clear of the needle
Call home on your sister's birthday
Don't tell them you're bigger than Jesus
Don't give it away, don't give it away."
Isbell's subject is the same as Blackberry Smoke in "One Horse Town" after having left it all. Isbell's characters are tall but tired, more than aware of their small place.
Lyrics are but one dimension of Isbell, who is a very capable guitar player who listened to a good deal of Neil Young as evidenced by the disc closer, "Like a Hurricane." He favors open chords, minor ones the best. His sound is a somber eutection of Robbie Robertson and Young, that periodically explodes into guitar-god fireworks. Supplementing his 400 unit is a three-piece horn section, recalling not in a little way that employed by The Band on Rock of Ages (Capitol, 1972). the horn sections on both recordings provide a greater depth to music that already possess considerable profundity. That is the total charm of Isbell and his music, smart and desperate plots punctuated with a salting-the-earth guitar...leave no prisoners.
Track Listing: Tour of Duty; Decoration Day; Goddamn Lonely Love; Heart On A String;
Danko/Manuel; In A Razor Town; Alabama Pines; Outfit; Cigarettes and
Wine; TVA; The Blue; Dress Blues; Like A Hurricane.
Personnel: Jason Isbell: guitars, vocals; Jimbo Hart: bass, vocals; Browan Lollar:
guitar, vocals; Derry deBorja: keyboards; Chad Gamble: drums, vocals;
Brad Guin: tenor saxophone; Rob Alley: trumpet; Chad Fisher: trombone.
Record Label: Lightning Rod Records