Live from the Ryman stands as a remarkable set of great songs performed with skill and emotion.
For the fourth consecutive year, Jason Isbell’s had a residency at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. It an honor he’s earned by matching exceptional songwriting with a tight band and strong performances. Reports from these shows regularly discuss the mix of fist-pumping rockers and tear-jerking ballads; Isbell and the 400 Unit are in a special mode these days, and new release Live from the Ryman, which captures highlights from the 2017 run, reveals a band in top form. But it also limits itself in odd ways.
While the album draws from various shows, it’s sequenced as if it were a single concert, from energizing “Hope the High Road” to the emotional close of “If We Were Vampires.” The set rises and falls in intensity, simulating a good concert experience. The slow pacing and fiddle solo on “Flagship” make for a nice respite after “White Man’s World” and before the blasting “Cumberland Gap.” “Super 8” fits wonderfully between “Cover Me Up” and “If We Were Vampires.” If this track list showed up as an actual setlist, it would make sense, except for a running time shorter than a typical concert.
If the albums flows like a concert, it also works like a good old-fashioned mixtape. The song choices come only from Isbell’s most recent three albums, making it much like a greatest hits of Isbell’s recent work. Music from last year’s The Nashville Sound provides a few of the more raucous moments, given the more sedate leanings of its predecessors. None of these songs are reworked in strange ways that add particular insight or moods to the original recordings, although the bluesy, well-paced version of “Last of My Kind” does add weight to an already memorable song. The 400 Unit plays tastefully. There are no wandering jams or stage destruction, nor are there silly slow downs to fake gravitas.
What that means, though, is that the album somewhat rehashes three recent albums. As an entry into Isbell’s catalog, it would be hard to do better, but it’s a shame that the compilers of the set missed the chance to include some rarities (Drive-By Truckers cuts appeared on an earlier live release) or covers. Last year, Isbell played a number of Tom Petty songs at his Ryman shows. Including one of those on this disc would have given a sense of what was special about the 2017 shows, and would have tied it in to its historical moment (given Petty’s death just weeks before these concerts).
As a single-disc piece of music, Live from the Ryman stands as a remarkable set of great songs performed with skill and emotion. However, within the context of Isbell’s career and catalog, it feels like a missed opportunity. It’s easy to imagine one of these discs coming out every year or two (think of the way Pearl Jam or the Who have issued live documents), with each one less a hits showcase and more a representation of a given year. The putative disc from the 2018 shows could have an entirely new list of songs, including covers of songs by the Allman Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Rush and Creedence Clearwater Revival. As Isbell’s ascent continues (or, possibly, maintains), live albums could offer something other than contract fulfillments or quick overviews. This release is stellar, yet it just hints at what could be.