When Jason Isbell left the Drive-By Truckers in 2007 to launch a solo career, he had to learn both how to sustain a full album on his own, and how to endure and outlive comparisons to his former band — who just happen to be one of the best rock groups in the country. Five years and three studio albums later, Isbell is still grappling with these issues, but Live from Alabama sounds like a crucial step forward in his development.
Recorded in Birmingham and Huntsville, this concert album moves Isbell and the 400 Unit out of the studio and onto the stage, where they’re obviously more comfortable and more commanding. It also allows him to cherry-pick some of his best solo and Truckers tunes, with a few covers thrown in for good measure. Building off their southern rock foundation, he and his band show off an elastic Muscle Shoals rhythm section on “The Blue” and punch up “Danko/Manuel” and “Goddamn Lonely Love” with some exquisitely forlorn Stax horns.
Ignoring the closer — a completely redundant cover of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane” — Live from Alabama is roughly bookended by two of Isbell’s songs, which chronicle very different experiences of soldiers returning home from war: a joyous homecoming in “Tour of Duty” and a small-town funeral in “Dress Blues.” Both showcase Isbell’s eye for humanizing detail, and their combination lends this live album its considerable gravity and makes it arguably Isbell’s finest and most persuasive solo release yet.