Jason Isbell / Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Live from the Ryman

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Since Jason Isbell left the Drive-By Truckers in 2007, he and his backing band the 400 Unit have released a live EP (2008's Live at Twist and Shout), a full-length live album (2012's Live from Alabama), a concert video (2014's Jason Isbell: Live at Austin City Limits), and a limited-edition live in the studio EP dominated by covers (2017's Live from Welcome to 1979, a Record Store Day release). So is there really any compelling reason for Isbell to give us yet another live recording? One listen to 2018's Live from the Ryman, recorded during a six-night run of shows at Nashville's legendary Ryman Auditorium, does bring one good reason to mind -- Isbell and his band are an unusually good live act, and what they do communicates very well after the fact. Unlike Live from Alabama, Live from the Ryman was recorded in the wake of Isbell's breakthrough with 2013's Southeastern, and the set list was drawn from that album and its two follow-ups, 2015's Something More Than Free and 2017's The Nashville Sound. While Isbell and the 400 Unit have always delivered on-stage, the focus and insight that Isbell brought to these songs makes for a powerful listening experience, and the emotional honesty and introspection fuels performances that find him baring his soul, avoiding histrionics but making clear these stories come from deep inside his heart and conscience. And Isbell's band is stellar on these recordings, filling out the arrangements with dexterity and nuance. The 400 Unit know how to find the fine details in quieter numbers like "Flagship" and "Elephant," they can come out with potent hard rock on numbers such as "Hope the High Road" and "Cumberland Gap," and the high-spirited stomp of "Super 8" makes it that rare cautionary tale that's as fun as it is ominous. Live from the Ryman doesn't change what you already know about Jason Isbell as a writer or a performer, but as a document of his many strengths, it's powerful and thoroughly entertaining, and is one more reminder that he's as smart and gifted as any songwriter at work today -- and he can work the crowd like nobody's business.

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