Is it cheating when your best album is a live release that covers your entire career?
Since Jason Isbell emerged as the pup head to the Drive-By Truckers' southern rock Cerberus about a decade ago, it's been hard not to attach the phrase "promising" to the guy. Isbell's first released recordings — amounting to just six songs on the band's Decoration Day (2003) and The Dirty South (2004) — possess a narrative clarity that some songwriters take a career to develop. The rasp and drawl to his tenor makes songs about John Henry and archetypal Southern family feuds sink in like hard-learned life lessons, as much from the gut as the sad-funny advice from dad on "Outfit" and the sad-sad touring meditations on "Danko/Manuel". In Truckers live sets in the Isbell era, he was the standout of three guitarists, drawing you in with pauses and bends like an Alabaman Richard Thompson, and, unlike ex-bandmates Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, his rep was never as tied to a professional partnership, so when he announced his break from the group, it seemed like solo stardom was a foregone conclusion. Yet "promising" he remains, a first-rate songwriter and performer with a few too many second-rate songs.
This live album, recorded over subsequent nights at Birmingham's WorkPlay Theatre and Huntsville's Crossroads Café, could make a new listener wonder just how Isbell hasn't spent the last 10 years with a Ryan Adams-level following. With the benefit of a song selection cherry picked from his Truckers years to his most recent solo work, he and a never-tighter 400 Unit make the best album-length case yet for Isbell as one of America's most underappreciated singer-songwriters.
After leaving the Drive-By Truckers after A Blessing and A Curse (2006), a lesser effort heavier on the latter than the former, Isbell released Sirens of the Ditch in 2007. Putting aside some of the Southern gothic imagery and rock mythologizing he'd adopted with the Truckers, Isbell went small-scale and introspective. Unfortunately, even the best songs on Sirens, recorded between Truckers albums with assists from Isbell's soon-to-be-ex-bandmates, sound like covers of classics knocked out by musicians still tentatively learning their parts; it's a side project released as a solo debut. Recruiting a dedicated touring band, the 400 Unit, went a long way to remedying these problems on the road, where Isbell's new outfit blasted out his solo songs, Truckers gems, and revelatory covers with scrappy ferocity. The band's 2009 debut, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, captured that vitality, but they were in such a rush to get into the studio that Isbell only managed to write a few new songs worthy of their talents. Finally, on 2011's Here We Rest, songwriting and chops started to come together. But this success was still one best appreciated by fans who have long watched Isbell struggle to assemble the pieces; as an introduction, it still only catches some bright sparks from a formidable fire.
Maybe it's a cheat that Isbell's first all-killer solo release happens to be a career-spanning live album, but if that's what it takes to reinforce that that his is an oeuvre that includes "Goddamn Lonely Love" and "Dress Blues" and "Alabama Pines" and "Outfit", then so be it. It would have been one thing for Isbell and the 400 Unit to inject the better Sirens of the Ditch songs with the passion they lacked in their studio incarnations (only two appear), but the unexpected treat is in hearing them improve on Isbell's Drive-By Truckers songs. "Decoration Day", once a testament to the power of three guitars, is less monolithic when adapted for the 400 Unit's guitar, keys, bass, drums lineup, but it's also more dynamic and adds plenty of room for Isbell's guitar to give voice to the beatings and murders of the Hill and Lawson clans. Even better, the three-piece horn section that joins the band for "Goddamn Lonely Love" and "Danko/Manuel" (as well as a fine cover of Candi Staton's "Pearls on a String" revisited from Here We Rest) renders these versions definitive, even better than the Truckers' studio takes.
With five songs that Isbell originally recorded during his Drive-By Truckers tenure and two covers, Live from Alabama is short on original tunes from Isbell's solo career, but the choices are more than sound. "Tour of Duty", once relegated to the back end of Here We Rest, kicks things off cheerfully, with Isbell's vet coming home to stay, while "Dress Blues", one of Isbell's best songs that wasn't done justice by the tepid Sirens of the Ditch recording, mourns one of his compatriots. "The Blue" and "Cigarettes and Wine" (as well as the Staton cover) represent Isbell's soulful side well, although the lack of original up-tempo rockers does give a somewhat selective view of his capabilities. For all of his spottiness as an album artist, he's also the guy who wrote "The Day John Henry Died" and "Go It Alone", so it's a little odd to hear him reserve his raucous side for a good, but straightforward, cover of "Like a Hurricane".
So does a quietly-released live album count as Jason Isbell's promise finally being fulfilled? Probably not by most standards. But it suggests that he's been fulfilling that promise in small ways all along, and, to judge by the selections, he's got a good ear for his best work at least in retrospect, so maybe he'll get around to that all-around classic studio album one of these days.