Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit release live album infused with Southern charm


Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s new album Live from Alabama captures the raw energy of the band’s live show in a hometown setting. While the album isn’t likely to draw in new listeners, fans of roots rock and country will enjoy it (Photo Courtesy of Joshua Black Wilkins).

Ricky Stein

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Live from Alabama
Artist: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Album: Live from Alabama
Label: Lightning Rod Records
Songs to Download: “Outfit,” “Like a Hurricane”

Since parting ways with the Drive-By Truckers in 2007 to embark on a solo career, singer/songwriter/guitarist Jason Isbell has maintained a steady stream of quality album releases that has mirrored the consistency and prolific output of his former band. Sirens of the Ditch marked a promising solo debut for Jason Isbell. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit hit a new stride in 2009, and Isbell displayed progression as a writer and performer on 2011’s Here We Rest.

Live from Alabama, out Tuesday from Lightning Rod Records, captures the raw energy of the band’s live show in a hometown setting. Recorded during two sold-out shows, one at the WorkPlay Theater in Birmingham, the other at the Crossroads Cafe in Huntsville, the album features 13 songs that span Isbell’s career, from his tenure with the Truckers on up through the present day.

The 400 Unit, composed of keyboardist Derry DeBorja, bassist Jimbo Hart and drummer Chad Gamble, performs these songs with seemingly effortless precision, providing a sturdy framework for Isbell’s husky baritone. The songs themselves, like much of Isbell’s work, revolve around stories of growing up in the South and the angels and demons that hide in the shadows of Southern small-town America.

The set opens with “Tour of Duty,” the closing track from Here We Rest. It serves as an appropriate introduction for a band that has played hundreds of shows each year since its formation in 2009. Isbell then reaches back six years for “Decoration Day,” the title track to the 2003 Drive-By Truckers’ album.

After blasting through another DBT classic, “Goddamn Lonely Love,” the band then launches into a spry rendition of Candi Staton’s 1970 single “Heart on a String,” originally recorded by the Alabama R&B singer at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.

“Danko/Manuel,” another holdover from Isbell’s Drive-By Truckers days, follows, featuring a guest brass section of trombone, trumpet and saxophone. “In a Razor Town” from Isbell’s 2007 debut, displays some of his trademark lines that parody life in the South: “In a Razor Town you take whoever you think you can keep around.”

The same can be said for the two subsequent songs, “Alabama Pines” and “Outfit.” The latter, which is another song culled from Isbell’s Drive-By Truckers output is a song he wrote for his father with trademark Southern wit: “Well, I used to go out in a Mustang / a 302 Mach 1 in green / till me and your mama made you in the back / and I sold it to buy her a ring.”

“Cigarettes and Wine,” “TVA,” “The Blue” and “Dress Blues” lead up to the record’s final statement: a blistering cover of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane.” Isbell’s voice sounds clean and raw, and the Alabama crowd clearly enjoys every minute of it.

Isbell keeps the between-song banter to a minimum, instead focusing on the performances of the songs themselves. The limited stylistic range is not likely to win over many new fans from outside the spheres of roots rock or country, but for fans of the genres, Live from Alabama captures one of the best singer/songwriter-and-band combinations doing what they do best.

Quick Takes

Kid Rock – Rebel Soul
Artist: Kid Rock

Album: Rebel Soul
Label: Atlantic
Songs to Download: “Chickens in the Pen,” “Let’s Ride”

After actually coming close to artistic respectability with 2010’s Born Free, the Detroit rap-rocker returns to what he does best: writing and recording songs about strippers, white trash and every kind of sleaze known to the back rooms of Heartland America.

Rihanna – Unapologetic
Artist: Rihanna

Album: Unapologetic
Label: Def Jam
Songs to Download: “Diamonds,” “Pour It Up”

The prolific pop diva releases her seventh album since 2005. Highlights include the bombastic “Diamonds,” the Mike Will collaboration “Pour It Up” and the dance-infused Chris Brown duet
“Nobody’s Business.”

Elvis Costello – In Motion Pictures
Artist: Elvis Costello

Album: In Motion Pictures
Label: Hip-O Records
Songs to Download: “Accidents Will Happen,” “Seven Day Weekend”

This compilation presents a set of 15 songs by the British pub-rocker that have been featured in films. The collection showcases Costello’s ability to write cinematic, theme-oriented music while also serving as a comprehensive survey of his ever-evolving 35-plus year career.

Printed on Tuesday, November 20, 2012 as: New release infused with Southern charm