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Published: 2012/11/15
by Brian Robbins

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
Live From Alabama

Lightning Rod Records

Former Drive-By Trucker, my ass.

I mean, sure: to put things in proper context, Jason Isbell was a Trucker from 2001 to 2007 – and played some great music during that period. But we’re creeping up on almost as many post-DBT years under Isbell’s belt as he spent in the Truckers. The man’s continued to grow as a songwriter and musician – and put together a killer band of his own in the process, The 400 Unit. Their latest release is Live From Alabama, a baker’s dozen of cuts put to tape on a couple of hot August nights earlier this year. And whether it’s a tune from Isbell’s solo catalog, one of the ones penned back when he was with the Truckers, or a cover of a favorite by someone else, this band is creating music that belongs to them – lock, stock, and barrel.

God bless the Drive-By Truckers – may they roll on for a long, long time to come – but it truly is time that the world forgot about that “former” thing: Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit are happening right now.

Isbell and The 400 Unit (keyboardist Derry deBorja, bassist Jimbo Hart, and drummer Chad Gamble) offer up multitudes of sound and emotions: from gentle country soul to hard-edged ballads; from Saturday-night throw-the-cap-away raggedy-assed rock to Sunday-morning-hangover-soothing soul salvation. You’d think Live From Alabama was going to be the Last Album Ever the way The 400 Unit lays these tunes down.

“Tour Of Duty” ushers things in on a well-graded dirt road, laced with classic Isbellisms (“I’ve been eating like I’m out on bail” is my personal fave; “We’ll laugh like little children telling secrets/Probably cry like old women drinking gin” is another) and sweet splashes of deBorja’s keyboards throughout. Whether he intended to be or not, Isbell has become the voice of this decade’s vets; “Tour Of Duty” is a joyous fist in the air, while “Dress Blues” reflects on another homecoming, this one by a soldier who “never planned on the bombs in the sand” ending his tour.

The lives of the characters in “Decoration Day” are full of generations-old feuds between families and senseless violence: Isbell’s lyrics tell the story brilliantly, but it’s his slide solo that seals the deal. (When his bandmates drop back just past the 3:00 mark and let Isbell’s guitar do the talking, the result is damn near frightening.)

Hart and Gamble team up to create the buoyant, bubbling undercurrent of rhythm that floats the cover of Candi Staton’s Muscle Shoals classic “Heart On A String” (aided by the guest horns of Rob Alley, Chad Fisher, and Brad Guin). There’s no break-loose soloing on “Cigarettes And Wine” but there doesn’t need to be; the band slow-waltzes step-for-step with Isbell’s raw-and-real tale of a love gone, gone, gone. “TVA” is lovely and simple – Isbell and his acoustic guitar; and you don’t have to come from Alabama to be moved by the father’s advice doled out in “Outfit” (or the crashing full-band crescendo of the song’s final minute).

Five minutes into “Danko/Manuel” Isbell eases into a guitar break as deBorja’s keys flutter like rose petals to the ground around him. With tone raspy and sharp, Isbell works his way into a passage of rippling, rumbling notes that snap and bite against each other – as rough and beautiful as the song’s inspirations. “In A Razor Town” is a much-needed goodbye, although here it segues nicely into “Alabama Pines” where the narrator is heading back home, one way or the other. (Another Isbellism: “I needed that damn woman like a dream needs gasoline.”)

The album’s finale is a bold move: what can done with Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane” that hasn’t already been done? (Especially with Young and Crazy Horse out there still playing their asses off themselves.) Isbell and The 400 Unit pull it off, however: a moan of feedback eventually explodes into Isbell picking out the tune’s immediately-recognizable melody; Hart lets loose with a warning roar way high on the bass’ neck, then swoops down into the lower frets as Gamble’s drums explode. Derry deBorja is the band’s secret weapon on “Like A Hurricane” – his keys provide extra lift to the beast that another guitar couldn’t. Isbell sings Young’s lyrics like they came from his heart; Hart and Gamble kick as hard as Crazy Horse while adding rhythm flourishes of their own; and Isbell finds his own path through the guitar breaks that pay tribute to Young without ever simply imitating him. It’s a perfect roaring, crashing end to the album.

If you don’t know Jason Isbell’s music, this ain’t a bad place to start. And if you’ve been following him for years, well, you’re going to love this one. Live From Alabama is chock full of quintessential versions of some of Jason Isbell’s best work.

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