Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit Deliver Benefit Album of Spirited Covers Via ‘Georgia Blue’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit just came off a memorable beginning to October as Isbell hosted Shoals Fest which featured his former band’s two singer-songwriters, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley of the Drive-by Truckers, joining his band in live performance, while he in turn did the same during their sets. When the DBTS played at the Ryman, the following Monday, Isbell joined them as well. So, folks are buzzing about how great it was to have them all together again, albeit briefly. Now Isbell and the 400 Unit should garner additional attention with Georgia Blue, thirteen songs all associated with Georgia artists and rendered by an esteemed group of guests who join Isbell and his band. They are Julien Baker, Brandi Carlile, Bela Fleck, Steve Gorman, Peter Levin, Amanda Shires (who is a band member), Brittney Spencer, Chris Thile, Sadler Vaden (who is a band member), Adia Victoria, and John Paul White (in alphabetical surname order).

Created to celebrate Georgia’s role in the 2020 election and to provide resources to combat recent restrictive voting legislation, all proceeds will benefit three non-profits – Black Voters Matter, Fair Fight, and Georgia STAND-UP. These songs come from R.E.M., Drivn’ N’ Cryin,’ James Brown, Cat Power, Precious Bryant, Otis Redding, The Black Crowes, Indigo Girls, Now It’s Overhead, Gladys Knight & The Pips, The Allman Brothers Band, and Vic Chestnutt, mostly tunes that Isbell has long wanted to record.

The album kicks off with the signature acoustic banjo and mandolin sounds of Bela Fleck and Chris Thile respectively on R.E.M’s “Nightswimming.”  It’s an unusual way to begin for a kickass rock n’ roll band like the 400 Unit and creates some anticipation as to what this venture will sound like. A part of that answer comes from the 400 Unit’s guitarist’s former band, Drivn’ N’ Cryin’s original, as Sadler Vaden delivers a burning, reverberating “Honeysuckle Rose.” We hear the powerful vocals of Brittney Spencer on a tune usually reserved for male vocalists, James Brown’s “It’s Man’s Man’s World.” The fiddle intro more than hints at the next one, as Isbell’s wife, Amanda Shires, puts her inimitable stamp on Cat Power’s “Cross Bones Style.”  Adia Victoria then brings it down acoustically interpreting Precious Bryant’s “The Truth.”

Isbell himself takes the lead on one of the more widely recognizable tunes, Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” a courageous act that he pulls off well, digging deep for spine-tingling vocals. Isbell takes the honors on two others – “Reverse” (from Now It’s Overhead) and an especially dramatic reading of “I’m Through” (Vic Chestnutt). The gang gets back to rocking for The Black Crowes “Sometimes Salvation” featuring another powerful vocal, this from Steve Gorman. Brandi Carlile and Julien Baker harmonize beautifully in the Indigo Girls’ “Kid Fears.” Spencer oozes soul again on the Gladys Knight & The Pips hit “Midnight Train to Georgia” and the 400 Unit sounds like their Muscle Shoals forbears in support. Keyboardist Peter Levin turns his B3 loose for that most famous of Allman Brothers’ instrumentals, a scintillating, aptly intense twelve and half minute workout for he and the 400 Unit on “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” The album is bookended by another R.E.M. tune, the pulsating released single, “Driver 8,” sung with verve by Isbell and John Paul White. 

While Isbell may be the driver here, he is more than generous, putting the spotlight on his various guests, and giving his band the opportunity to show their potency and versatility.

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One Response

  1. Steve Gorman does not sing on Sometimes Salvation. He was the original drummer for The Black Crowes and plays drums on this cover with Isbell. Isbell sings the song.

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