REVIEW: “Live From the Ryman” by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit Reproduces Fanboy (and Fangirl) Experience


Live albums are a tricky business. They’re made mainly for hardcore fans, they rarely contain new music, and they attempt the impossible – reproducing the concert experience on the listener’s turntable or smartphone. Can’t be done. With that being said…a live album CAN serve as an approximation of an amazing musical evening. Live From the Ryman from Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit accomplishes just that. This is Isbell’s third stab at a live album (the first with the fully formed 400 Unit), and it draws from his magnificent three-album run (Southeastern, Something More Than Free and The Nashville Sound). Culled from the band’s six-night run at the legendary Nashville venue in October 2017, it brings the listener back to those evenings (including this reviewer, who was fortunate to be in the building for the final night of the band’s residency). Here’s a song-by-song, unabashedly fanboy-ish reaction to the album:

“Hope the High Road” – A perfect show starter and introduction to the band, perhaps the tightest group making music today. Isbell starts it up with guitar and vocals, Sadler Vaden chimes in and doubles up on the guitar, and drummer Chad Gamble kicks the song forward. Eventually, Amanda Shires’ fiddle pushes the song toward the end, where you can almost hear Vaden’s windmill wrapping it up.

“24 Frames” – Most notable is Jimbo Hart’s bass line, much more prominent than in the studio version.

“White Man’s World” – Isbell’s reflection on white privilege has garnered mixed reaction, both among fans and on tour (having see the band play outside of Missoula, I can report that, for the most part, Montana is NOT a fan). The response in Nashville is certainly a bit muted, but it’s one of the tightest performance on the album. The fiddle/guitar trade-off toward the end stands out.

“Flagship” – This beautiful, understated love song starts simply, with Isbell’s voice and acoustic guitar paired with Shires’ fiddle, joined by Derry deBorja’s gentle keys toward the end.

“Cumberland Gap” – This song, fast-paced enough as an album cut, seems to bring out a little extra in the band, perhaps because it’s one of the true rock-and-roll tunes in Isbell’s songbook.

“Something More Than Free” – This song didn’t “hit me” until he played it at Red Rocks on Labor Day 2018. It’s a simple song for the working man who wants just a little more out of life. The fiddle-to-guitar crescendo at the end of the bridge is one of the most thrilling musical moments on the album.

“The Life You Chose” – This is another song that didn’t immediately grab me. But it benefits greatly from a live setting – the chorus is eminently singalong-able. And “Victim of nostalgia/Maybe Tanqueray” is a sneaky-good line.

“Elephant” – The audience reaction at the beginning is everything – you can almost hear them saying, “We get ‘Elephant!’ I can’t believe we get ‘Elephant’!” It’s not a song the band plays every evening, but when they do, you get deBorja’s gorgeous low-end piano work and great interplay between his keys, Isbell’s acoustic guitar and Shires’ fiddle, not to mention more than a few tears.

“Flying Over Water” – A much-needed mood-lightener after “Elephant”, this is simply a great rock song, and, as a much-played four-year-old tune, it shows the band at its absolute tightest.

Plus, any song with a reference to Tennessee is going to play well in the Mother Church.

“Last of My Kind” – The best live song from The Nashville Sound, it gives each of the players a chance to shine. The tempo and dynamic changes and expert musicianship have the crowd in absolute ecstasy by the end.

“Cover Me Up” – THIS is it. THIS is the reason folks come back over and over again to see this band play – a song of love, redemption, and lots and lots of sex. The crowds hangs on every word, howling, yelping and whistling at their favorite phrases, until Isbell sings THE line (fans know the one), which is met by a huge exhale of applause. There have been complaints from a hardcore few regarding the seemingly-less-booming-than-normal drums at the song’s climax. Pipe down – they’re FINE.

“Super 8” – The first part of the de facto encore is a tale of true rock-n-roll road hazards masquerading as a big, loud rock song. It’s been a divisive track among fans, but, hey, not EVERY song is meant to make you cry. Plus, the band seems to have a hell of a lot of fun playing it.

“If We Were Vampires” – Isbell has added at least three classics to the American love song canon. This is the newest and darkest. It’s especially eerie when the band plays it live. It seems a bit melancholy as a show closer, but it’s a lyrical stunner, and mortality has never sounded so beautiful.

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