Live From The Ryman

Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit

Southeastern Records, 2018

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Songs that are heard first in a studio context often feel like they’re heard best in a studio context; too much clarity and detail is typically lost or altered in a live setting to measure up. The one x factor that can change this equation is if the live recording somehow manages to capture a taste of the essential magic of the concert setting—the exchange of energy between audience and performer, and the emotion the artist invests in the performance.

Leave it to Jason Isbell And the 400 Unit—one of the current moment’s most gifted singer-songwriters fronting one of its tightest backing bands—to beat the odds and deliver a live album that’s nearly as essential as the studio recordings its setlist is drawn from.

The odds were perhaps even higher for this writer given that I heard these songs live on the same tour that this album is drawn from; I’m deeply familiar with them and found no surprises on this album’s track list. Even so, it’s still remarkable to hear them in this context, a little rawer and edgier than their studio incarnations, and with the audience reaction bleeding into the performances by Isbell, Derry DeBorja (keys, accordion), Chad Gamble (drums), Jimbo Hart (bass), Amanda Shires (fiddle), and Sadler Vaden (guitar).

“Hope The High Road” from 2017’s The Nashville Sound is about as perfect a concert opener as you could hope for: assertive and sharply drawn, with a timely, meaningful message. From its ringing opening chords “Hope” gathers momentum until by the second verse it’s a pure, propulsive wave of sound. The more abstract but no less impactful “24 Frames” follows, a sweet, muscular opening one-two punch.

Among his many talents—beyond songwriting and singing, he’s also a hell of a guitar player and a witty Twitter raconteur—Isbell knows how to write a setlist. Changing speeds deftly, he moves from the tough mid-tempo blues of “White Man’s World” into the gentle acoustic ballad “Flagship” into the bruising rocker “Cumberland Gap,” lifting the audience on his shoulders and carrying them higher up the mountain. (And it only gets better from here.)my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The original studio version of “The Life You Chose” is intense and weighty, with airy, echoey 70s production. Playing it live, they forgo the airiness and deliver an up-tempo rendering, a fulsome arrangement with amped up guitars and fiddle that turns into an audience singalong on every chorus, and earns an emphatic cheer at the end. From there they go straight into one of the great opening lines in recent history: “She said, ‘Andy, you’re better than your past.’” How could you not want to see where that song goes? As always, “Elephant” is phenomenal, just a crushingly good song, raw, honest, and delivered with tremendous heart.

The next biggest singalong after “The Life You Chose” happens on “Last Of My Kind,” which, it must be said, is a brilliant lyric, not that that’s anything unusual for an Isbell song. Here they give the rather subtle, melodic studio track a big reading, stretching it out to seven minutes with extended soloing from Vaden and Shires, lending the song even more of an elegiac quality than the studio version.

Moments later, the opening chords to the brilliant autobiographical ballad “Cover Me Up” get a huge audience response (bring it!). And then the Ryman goes quiet as church before that final verse: “The old lovers sing / I thought it’d be me who’d help him get home / But home was a dream / One I’d never seen / ‘Til you came along.” As Isbell and Shires harmonize about the genesis of their own marriage, it’s just bracingly real and moving. This version adds a repeated final chorus decorated by a searing electric solo from Vaden, before they fall back to Isbell and Shires harmonizing so closely and intimately it’s enough to make you blush. And then the song finishes and the crowd erupts… goosebumps.

Frequent set-closer “Super 8” is everything it should be: a hoot, a blast, a rollicking honky-tonk singalong that releases every bit of tension just achieved. The final salve for a wrung-out audience and band is offered by encore “If We Were Vampires,” presented as a hymn, a song of deepest devotion decorated with one wrenching, memorable line after another:

“It's not the long, flowing dress that you're in
Or the light coming off of your skin
The fragile heart you protected for so long
Or the mercy in your sense of right and wrong
It's not your hands searching slow in the dark
Or your nails leaving love's watermark
It's not the way you talk me off the roof
Your questions like directions to the truth”

You really can’t top a lyric like that, and Isbell wisely doesn’t try, ending the evening with that ardent yet understated exclamation point. Live At The Ryman presents a genuinely great songwriter and performer, backed by an absolutely top-notch band, all at the height of their powers, in a physical setting that feels like home, in front of an audience that knows every word of these songs and responds in all the right moments and ways. It would’ve been just as accurate to call this album Bottling The Magic.

Rating: A-

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