Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, “Live from the Ryman” (Southeastern)
Jason Isbell has been on a roll of late, finding sobriety, domestic bliss and fame and fortune, thanks to three consecutive fine albums and a crackerjack touring act that includes his wife, Amanda Shires.
Alas, all winning streaks come to an end. “Live from the Ryman” ranks as a disappointment, partly because Isbell’s previous work set the artistic bar so high.
The album was recorded at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, and as Isbell and his band replicate studio versions of their songs, the performances are faithful to a fault. There are no dramatically reimaged renditions, and while the 13 selections are mostly terrific tunes, they’re all from Isbell’s three most recent records. That means no covers, and no trips into Isbell’s back catalog. In other words, no surprises.
Even the division of labor smacks of ho-hum — Isbell is an outstanding guitarist but seldom solos. And then there’s the audience, often a distraction on concert recordings. The spectators don’t clap on the one and the three, but when Isbell sings the first line of “Elephant,” a wrenching tune about disease and death, someone responds with a clueless “Woo!” To hear it once is off-putting, and it happens every time.
Perhaps Isbell merely wanted to document his appearance at the cathedral of country music. But live albums worth more than a couple of listens are rare, and this isn’t one of them.
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