Walter Tunis: Jason Isbell says he and 400 Unit are at 'a good point'

Singer-songwriter: Concert album reflects that

Contributing Music WriterDecember 13, 2012 

Americana Honors & Awards

Jason Isbell performed Alabama Pines on Sept. 12 at the Americana Honors & Awards, where it was named song of the year.

WADE PAYNE — Invision


    The Brian Setzer Orchestra Christmas Extravaganza at the Singletary Center for the Arts: "When he starts to boogie, the whole town rocks."

    That is part of the refrain Brian Setzer sang with no small degree of ceremony when describing jolly ol' St. Nick as his justly billed "Christmas Extravaganza" got under way. But the veteran guitarist and rockabilly stylist could have just as easily been singing about himself.

    The line comes from Boogie Woogie Santa Claus, an oft-covered holiday novelty tune first popularized by Mabel Scott in 1948. But within this program's grasp, the song unlocked the depth and vigor of the 18-member orchestra the guitarist had in tow. And this was no symphony. The lineup sported an acoustic bassist, drummer, two backup singers and Setzer. The remaining 13 members were all horn players. Needless to say, when Setzer undercut the brass attack with meaty but powerfully exact guitar runs, the joint very much got rocking.

    Performed on a stage illuminated by holiday trees, stockings and, of course, Santa hats for all the horn players, the concert could have tipped over into gaudy holiday excess. But despite wearing its seasonal sentiments very openly, the two-hour set was an immensely entertaining blend of rockabilly, jazz, soul and more. And in a condensed encore version of The Nutcracker Suite, the music shifted more specifically from Count Basie-style swing to feverish polka.

    Setzer's guitar work led the ensemble charge. Creating a marvelous sonic foil for the massive horn sound, he continually referenced roots rock forefathers like Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran in his playing, whether it was through the crisp, nocturnally inclined tone of non-holiday originals like '49 Mercury Blues and Drive Like Lightning (Crash Like Thunder) or the sass evident in Louis Prima's Jump, Jive an' Wail. The latter was played as part of a stripped-down trio set near the show's conclusion.

    A few stray hits from Setzer's days with the rockabilly trio Stray Cats, highlighted by the giddy Fishnet Stockings, colored the set. But the big fun clearly belonged to a spirit of the season that was brought to life with full and unapologetically rocking splendor.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Communist Daughter

9 p.m. Dec. 15 at Buster's Billiards & Backroom, 899 Manchester St. $15 in advance, $18 day of show. (859) 368-8871.

When your artistic reputation is staked so solidly on live performance, the release of a concert album becomes something like a rite of passage. And so it is for Jason Isbell.

Since amicably splitting from Drive-By Truckers in 2007 after a six-year stay, he has established his own name as an expert songsmith who meshes the sounds and lyrical inspirations of his Alabama heritage with a strong country/Americana sensibility. But the fan base earned in the five years since fronting his current band, the 400 Unit, has come mostly through a religiously rigorous touring schedule that has finely honed his sound and his songs.

So it is any wonder that his new album, Live in Alabama, is something of a mile-marker? It presents a tight, soulful and often reflective maturation of Isbell's music.

And, yes, the fact that the album is pulled from concerts performed on home-state turf doesn't hurt.

"I think the purpose of any album, really, is to record a certain group of people at a certain moment in time," said Isbell, 33, who returns to Lexington this weekend for a performance Saturday at Buster's. "It kind of charts your creative evolution.

"You try to keep challenging yourself and challenging your audience. We've come to a good point as a band. We've gotten very consistent and very familiar with each other over the years. So I thought it would be a really good time to try to capture that, get it down and get it out to folks so they could listen to it.

"The music is constantly evolving. I feel like I have a pretty solid catalog of songs to pick from now. That was another reason I wanted to do the live record: to consolidate a lot of that material from the last 10 to 12 years."

A highlight of both the record and Isbell's "evolving" sound is Alabama Pines, a song with a country spirit both restless and homesick. A tune that, in essence, pines for the pines, it first appeared on Isbell's third and newest studio album, 2011's Here We Rest.

In September, Alabama Pines was named song of the year at the Americana Music Association's Honors & Awards ceremony in Nashville.

"In that particular circle, I think it means more to me than it would in other groups," Isbell said. "You look at the Grammys every year. Some acts wound up getting those things, and you know they didn't write any of their own songs or really sing that much on their own recordings.

"That kind of thing just doesn't happen in the Americana world. They're not about whatever is most popular. They're going on what they feel like has quality to it. So it was really nice to be judged as something of quality by those people. They have been influences and inspirations for a long, long time."

Saturday's performance also comes with a note of caution. This might be your last glimpse of the 400 Unit for awhile. Isbell plans to devote 2013 to recording and promoting a solo recording. A few audiences caught a glimpse of a solo, acoustic Isbell last year, when he toured as an opening act for the similarly unaccompanied Ryan Adams.

"The songs I have right now will fit really well in that kind of a setting, so I think that's what you have to go with. You have to make a decision based on where the songs feel like they want to be played and how they're going to be recorded."

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