Jason Isbell has an affinity for crazy people. They wander through his songs, and even inspired his band’s name. The 400 Unit is a mental institution located in his homebase of Florence, Alabama, just outside Muscle Shoals. Isbell says that the 400 Unit used to take the healthiest inmates for a weekly outing, turning them loose downtown with $15 in their pocket to buy a sandwich for lunch. They were instantly recognizable by their behavior, most notably by the strange conversations they would attempt to have with anybody in the vicinity. He felt that behavior, as well as the meal per diem, was a perfect description of his band in their hardscrabble days, piling out of a ratty van in a strange town, suffering from a serious case of road burn, trying to communicate with the locals while looking for a sandwich.
Isbell proved long ago that he has no trouble communicating with anybody who stops to listen to his soul-baring, insightful lyrics. His latest release, Live From The Ryman, was recorded last year during the group’s six sold-out nights at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. The 13 tracks first appeared across three albums: 2013’s Southeastern, 2015’s Something More Than Free, and 2017’s The Nashville Sound.
Ironically, Isbell and the 400 Unit kick this one off with a man having a conversation with his estranged beloved about an upcoming case of shared mental crisis on “Hope The High Road:” “I hear you’re fighting off a breakdown / I myself am on the brink / I used to want to be a real man / I don’t know what that even means.” Isbell has said the song reflects his clear-headedness brought about by fatherhood and his sobriety, encouraging people to do something about their situation instead of just carping about it: “Now I just want you in my arms again / And we can search each others dreams.”
The band is one of the best road bands in the business, with Isbell on guitar and vocals, Derry deBorja on keyboards, Chad Gamble on drums, Jimbo Hart playing bass, Amanda Shires on fiddle, and Sadler Vaden on guitar.
The band lays out a blistering live version of “Cumberland Gap” that sounds more Springteenish and energized than the Steve Earle-flavored original on The Nashville Sound. There’s been some criticism that Isbell and the band delivered stock studio versions of the tunes on the live set, but even though they stuck close to the earlier templates, there’s an excitement and an exuberance to the performances that make the tunes jump out of the speakers.
Reminiscent of John Prine both lyrically and vocally, “Last Of My Kind,” gets an extended treatment, almost doubled in length and sweetened by Shires’ fiddle break in the middle as well as slid on and fingerplucked at length by Isbell and Vaden.
The closer, “If We Were Vampires,” from The Nashville Sound, gets a minute longer in the live version, deBorja laying down a Halloweenish backing organ creeping around behind Isbell’s acoustic guitar. But even amid some fuss that these renderings are not far enough from the studio versions, there’s no denying the power of Isbell’s lyrics, no matter what structure they’re hung on or how many times you hear them: “If we were vampires and death was a joke / We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke / And laugh at all the lovers and their plans … I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand / Maybe time running out is a gift.”
Isbell’s lyrical gifts go far beyond wish-I’d-said-that moments, plumbing the depths of the heart and soul in a way that makes you wants to sit as close to the creative fire as you can get. But if you couldn’t get there, you don’t have to be left out in the cold. In this case, his heat conductive prowess is so effective that you can feel the warmth from the comfort of home.