Georgia Blue

Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit

Southeastern, 2021

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


At 8:22 PM on November 5, 2020, Jason Isbell tweeted: “If Biden wins Georgia I’m gonna make a charity covers album of my favorite Georgia songs - REM, Gladys Knight, Vic Chesnutt, Allmans, Cat Power, Precious Bryant, Now It’s Overhead, etc... And damn is that gonna be fun”.

Mr. Isbell is a man of his word, in every respect.

It was unusual enough for the world-class songwriter to record an album of songs written by others, but to turn the fun quotient up all the way, he also recruited several notable friends to help. While a number of tracks here are straight covers by Isbell and his crack band The 400 Unit (Jimbo Hart on bass, Chad Gamble on drums, Derry DeBorja on keys, Amanda Shires on fiddle, and Sadler Vaden on guitar), the album also features a wide range of guest stars, many with Georgia connections, and Isbell only sings lead about half the time.

The operating principal for the album seems to have been “Damn, that would be cool.” So, sure: let’s reinvent iconic Atlanta band R.E.M.’s iconic, piano-based “Nightswimming” as a bluegrass ballad with Bela Fleck on banjo and Chris Thile on mandolin, joined by Isbell on acoustic guitar. The simple change from plonking big strings to plucking small ones utterly transforms the song, generating remarkable layers of texture, a fascinating, satisfying cover that freshens up the song beautifully—and of course, pensive and melancholy is right in Isbell’s wheelhouse as a singer.

If you were wondering where the electric guitars were, though, you don’t have to wonder long, as Isbell hands the baton to 400 Unit guitar slinger Sadler Vaden for a cover of his former Atlanta country-rock band Drivin’ & Cryin’s anthemic number “Honeysuckle Blue” (heh). Vaden both sings and plays fuzzy, crunchy ’70s rock lead guitar and does a very nice job of both.

Though born in South Carolina, James Brown spent much of his career working and living in Georgia, so a cover is certainly called for, even if his brand of sweaty r&b feels out of reach for Isbell. Smart guy that he is, though, Isbell recruits Brittney Spencer, the young African American country sensation, to sing lead on “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” and she absolutely knocks it out of the park. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Maybe the greatest stylistic outlier here is the group’s haunted, haunting cover of Cat Power’s “Crossbones Style” with Isbell’s wife and 400 Unit fiddle player Amanda Shires taking the lead role and adopting a bit of a Stevie Nicks wail at the climax of this moody number.

From there we find highlights both lesser and greater. Covering Precious Bryant’s “The Truth” with Aida Victoria on lead vocals is undeniably cool, as is the band’s thunderous take on the Black Crowes’ “Sometimes Salvation,” with original Crowe Steve Gorman sitting in on drums. And if you’re going to cover an Indigo Girls song, you surely want the likes of Julien Baker and Brandi Carlile up front, delivering some serious vocal firepower. Finally, bookending the album with another R.E.M. song makes good sense, even if the group’s take on “Driver 8” feels more reverent than revelatory.

The remaining standouts do so for different reasons. When Isbell takes the mic again, it’s for another iconic song by another iconic Georgia performer: Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” The dramatic piano and fiddle arrangement is terrific and Isbell sings the hell out of it, seeming at times like he’s trying to out-Otis Mr. Redding himself. Thing is, it can’t be done, which means this one can feel a little over the top in places.

You might say something similar about the group’s cover of the Allman Brothers Band’s instrumental tour de force “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed,” with ABB keyboardist Peter Levin sitting in. At 12 and a half minutes, this number—which takes inspiration from the definitive Live At Fillmore East live version rather than the far shorter studio version—was likely a blast for the band to play, and will likely be the same for a certain subset of fans to hear. Certainly, Isbell and band get room to stretch out and show off their considerable chops—it just feels a tad self-indulgent in the context of an album of otherwise standard-length vocal covers.

And then there’s the number that feels inevitable: “Midnight Train To Georgia.” You know it’s coming, and you know it takes courage bordering on foolhardiness just to sing a song that was so definitively rendered by Gladys Knight & The Pips. You’re waiting to hear them fall short of that standard, and damn if they don’t flat-out refuse to. With Brittney Spencer back on lead vocals, John Paul White handling harmonies, and a full horn section recorded at Sam Phillips Studio in Memphis, “Midnight Train” turns out to be the highlight of Georgia Blue. The band has that Muscle Shoals r&b flow in their collective bones, the horns punch through at just the right times, and Spencer sings it like the young diva she is, giving the song every bit of passion and respect she possesses. Wowza.

Beyond serving as a musical example of “promise made, promise kept,” Georgia Blue offers an abundance of quality craftsmanship and musical tips of the cap from one of the tightest bands in America. Fun was clearly had by all—which isn’t to say they didn’t take the task of covering these songs seriously. To the contrary, they embraced the challenge and stepped up with a series of stellar performances. (As promised, all proceeds from sales of the album are being donated to three Georgia-based non-profit organizations: Black Voters Matter, Fair Fight and Georgia STAND-UP.)

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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