Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Live From Alabama

While you weren’t looking, Jason Isbell became one of America’s best songwriters – from any genre; rock, folk, country, garage, you name it. Commencing during his 2001-07 stint with the Drive-By Truckers, Isbell quietly began establishing his bonafides via such tracks as “Decoration Day,” “Danko/Manuel” and “Goddamn Lonely Love,” all faves among Truckers fans. With 2007 solo bow Sirens of the Ditch and then again with 2009’s Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit he demonstrated that those nuggets weren’t merely the DBTs equivalent of McCartney and Lennon tossing Harrison a track-listing bone, as evidenced by the likes of the elegantly heartbroken “Cigarettes and Wine,” brawny thumper “Try,” bluesy Memphian rocker “Seven Mile Island” and the waltz-time “Dress Blues.” Then last year’s Here We Rest firmly hoisted Isbell’s flag for all to see, its key tracks – the Stones-y “Go It Alone,” folky “Tour of Duty,” the bluegrass-inflected “Alabama Pines,” anthemic singalong “Codeine” – demonstrating an uncommonly supple voice both musically and lyrically.

Of course, if you require objective proof of Isbell’s prowess beyond some reviewer’s effusion, note that he scored “Song of the Year” honors at the 2012 Americana Music Awards for “Alabama Pines,” with Here We Rest nabbing three nominations total. So believe it.

That track and most of the others mentioned above get revisited in fine fashion on Live From Alabama, cut this past August on home turf before appreciative crowds in Birmingham and Huntsville. It’s an interesting album, because while most groups would lean on anthems and proven crowd pleasers when laying down a live recording for posterity, Isbell and his 400 Unit (keyboardist/guitarist Derry deBorja, bassist Jimbo Hart, drummer Chad Gamble) eschew fireworks in favor of a purposeful slow-burn effect that does in fact showcase what the bandleader does best – write great songs. Opening with a countryish “Tour of Duty,” Isbell eases directly into storytelling mode; here, a first-person tale about a veteran home from the war who’s “been eating like I’m out on bail” and trying to regain some normalcy by starting a family with his young bride. A few numbers later, in the brooding, soulful “Goddam Lonely Love” (one of several tracks featuring a three-piece horn section to lend a distinctive Muscle Shoals vibe), Isbell’s protagonist, bleary-eyed and heartbroken at some nondescript bar, admits he’s defeated, confessing, “I ain’t really falling asleep; I’m fadin’ to black.” Song after song here chronicles the lives and hard times of normal everyday people, from military personnel and blue-collar workers to cynical old-timers and starry-eyed youngsters, and it’s Isbell’s straightforward narratives, with subtle but telling details lining the edges, that fully render his characters in three dimensions.

In a unique act of humility, Isbell opts not to end the record with a tune of his own, but one from another songwriter: Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane,” performed faithfully, the 400 Unit rhythm section pulsing with understated grace while deBorja’s soaring keyboard lines and Isbell’s tuneful leads bring Young’s melody to the forefront. As Isbell utters the opening line, “Once I thought I saw you in a crowded, hazy bar…” the emotional accumulation of the previous hour’s dozen songs comes rushing back, and by the time the band crashes into the closing chords of this timeless, transcendent love song, you’re left with the distinct impression that somehow, some way, a torch has been passed from one songwriting giant to a younger giant-in-waiting. You might say it’s way too early in Isbell’s career to cast such a prediction, but I don’t think so. My instincts are telling me, believe it.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Live From Alabama
[Lightning Rod]