Review: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit shine in 'Live From the Ryman'
Being human, it's only natural that musicians have some concert venues they love more than others. Whether it's the venue's history, beauty, acoustics, or the lively crowd it always brings, most musicians have a place they call “home.” For Jason Isbell, that venue is Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. Isbell has spoken often about his love for the venue and Ryman audiences have returned that love. Since 2014, Isbell has sold out 20 shows in a row at the venue, including his forthcoming 6 night run that sold out in hours. So it makes sense that, for his new live album, releasing Oct. 19 on Isbell's own Southeastern Records, he'd record shows at that venue.
Live From the Ryman consists of 13 songs recorded during Isbell's six night 2017 Ryman residency. It pulls exclusively from the three albums Isbell has released on Southeastern Records, 2013's Southeastern, 2015's Something More Than Free, and 2017's The Nashville Sound. While that leaves some earlier Isbell concert favorites, such as “Codeine” and “Dress Blues,” it helps to keep the album focused.
One advantage and disadvantage to having albums that achieve success with little or no radio airplay is that there are no “hits,” and there are sure to be fans who are disappointed not to hear their personal favorite song from those three making the cut (“Anxiety” and “Live Oak” were heartbreaking misses for me personally). Overall, Isbell keeps the representation between the albums fairly even and very representative of his range, with gut wrenching ballads like “Elephant” and “If We Were Vampires” separated by guitar rockers like “24 Frames” and the album's highlight, “Cumberland Gap.”
But if you're looking up reviews of a Jason Isbell live album, you likely already know the quality of songwriting to expect. The things that make Live From the Ryman special are the things you can't get from a studio recording, primarily a full appreciation of just how much Isbell's longtime backing band, The 400 Unit, adds to his sound. Consisting of Sadler Vaden on guitar, Jimbo Hart on bass, Derry DeBorja on keys, Chad Gamble on drums, and Amanda Shires on fiddle and harmony vocals, The 400 Unit shows that every recent comparison to famed backing bands like The E Street Band or The Heartbreakers is absolutely warranted. There's a live intensity to the songs that no studio recording could ever capture. Shires, especially, shines anytime her voice melds with Isbell's.
The other advantage of a live album over a studio album is the audience's reaction to the songs. A great live album mixes the audience in just enough to no distract from the music but to add their own energy and the mix on Live From the Ryman is spot-on. While the audience is never intrusive, their raucous cheer following the line “I sobered up, I swore off that stuff forever this time” from “Cover Me Up” could swell even the most frosty of hearts. That one moment of an audience cheering not a song or a lick but loudly showing their investment in the personal triumphs of the artist stands out as special in an age where baiting fallen celebrities has replaced baseball as America's national pastime.
Live From the Ryman is, for all intents and purposes, a near perfect live recording but if I had to find one complaint it would be the missed opportunity to include one of Isbell's six different Tom Petty covers played during the 2017 run. It all fits in with keeping the focus on his three Southeastern albums, but Isbell's adoration of Petty was so obvious during those shows that the inclusion of one (or all of them as a bonus album) would have given fans who weren't lucky enough to see them in person a chance to hear them.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit's next Ryman Auditorium residency starts Oct. 22, but if you want to go prepare to fork out on the secondary market as they've been sold out for months. Fortunately, they do have plenty of other opportunities to see them in the coming months. Here are the tour dates:
Mon, OCT 22- Ryman Auditorium Nashville, TN
Tue, OCT 23- Ryman Auditorium Nashville, TN
Wed, OCT 24- Ryman Auditorium Nashville, TN
Fri, OCT 26 Ryman Auditorium- Nashville, TN
Sat, OCT 27- Ryman Auditorium Nashville, TN
Sun, OCT 28- Ryman Auditorium Nashville, TN
Fri, DEC 07- Dixie Carter Performing Arts Center Huntingdon, TN
Sat, DEC 08- Lyric Theatre Birmingham, AL
Sun, DEC 09- Lyric Theatre Birmingham, AL
Mon, DEC 10- Lyric Theatre Birmingham, AL
Sat, DEC 15- EKU Center for the Arts Richmond, KY
Sun, DEC 16- Mountain Arts Center Prestonsburg, KY