Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit Live Up to the Hype on “Live at the Ryman” (ALBUM REVIEW)


Jason Isbell has been the top winner at the annual Americana Awards Show for the past three years on the strength of three excellent albums and riveting live shows.  This set, mostly culled from Nashville’s fabled Ryman Auditorium last year demonstrates why he and his band, The 400 Unit, can seemingly do no wrong these days. Live at the Ryman has 13 songs drawn from Southeastern (2013), Something More Than Free (2015) and The Nashville Sound (2017).

Having attended one of this group’s touring shows last year, this resembles that setlist and evokes the energy the band brings to their live shows.  Both guitarist Sadler Vaden and Isbell often trade leads and licks while fiddler Amanda Shires (Isbell’s wife) and keyboardist Derry Deborja have their own cutting act.  Keeping it all controlled is the rhythm tandem of bassist Jimbo Hart and drummer Chad Gamble, most of whom grew up in northern Alabama as Isbell did.

The band has become to the Ryman what the Allman Brothers once were to New York’s Beacon.  Isbell and gang have had 14 consecutive Ryman sellouts form 2014-2017 and are poised to sell out another six this fall. Clearly Isbell is on top these days, having won two 2018 Grammy Awards for Best Americana Album (The Nashville Sound) and Best American Roots Song (“If We Were Vampires”).  They followed suit with three American Music Association Awards last month.  The most recent album is well represented here with five songs, and “If Were Vampires,” done as on the album acoustically with Isbell and Shires, is the finale.

The album begins with the rocking “Hope the High Road” against crunching guitars and the band firing up right from the start. He follows with “24 Frames,” his major song from Something More Than Free.  Keep in mind that Isbell issued both this album and Southeastern under his own name even though some band members played on them. He didn’t link The 400 Unit next to his name until The Nashville Sound. As such, the full band makes the songs from those solo efforts more robust and in some cases, more emotional.

So, specifically, we have from Southeastern: “Cover Me Up,” “Elephant,” “Flying Over Water” and “Super 8.”  From Something More Than Free: “24 Frames,” “Flagship” and the title track. The Nashville Sound has “Hope the High Road,” “White Man’s World,” “Cumberland Gap,” “Last of My Kind” and “If We Were Vampires.”  One stands alone – “The Life You Chose.” The song that makes the best transition from studio version to live version is “Last of My Kind,” done here as extended version and Isbell pouring even more grit and emotion into it.  Thankfully also Shires fiddle is prominently in the mix and she has some beautiful turns, especially on “Flagship” and “Elephant.” If you attend a live gig though, you will hear some others from earlier in his solo career as well as a couple of gems he penned with his former band, The Drive-by Truckers.

Just the same, this is a well-paced live album which has the band playing at full throttle, easing it down acoustically, and delivering some of the best roots songs of our recent times.

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