This is the kind of ambitious release that Record Store Day should be all about. Recorded directly to lacquer at Welcome to 1979 Studios in Nashville, Live from Welcome to 1979 is Jason Isbell’s (and his incredible band, The 400 Unit’s) chance to let the world hear just how adept they are at playing other artist’s material, and in only one unaltered take. The click of an overdrive pedal being turned on, the snap of drumsticks counting the song in, the low hum of a tube amp ready to sing; this is the sound of what Nashville should (and, if it isn’t too far gone, still could) be — real music made by real people, in a studio that cares about preserving the lost art of recorded music.
To understand the ambitiousness of the record, you first need to know the studio, Welcome to 1979. Founded in 2008, they are a self proclaimed “analog centric (and digital capable)” studio with the mantra: “Fingers On Strings, Hands On Faders, Music On Tape.” In line with their analog philosophy, they’re one of the very few studios in the world that can cut a recording directly to lacquer disc; the first step in the process of getting the music to vinyl. It’s a tedious process, but allows the music to get to the record with minimal interference, bypassing the quality degradation from tape or digital.
Musically, the band’s playing is fiery and bright. The album opens with “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” the first of two Rolling Stones covers. Isbell’s lower register gives the song a little less grit than the Stones’ version, but the saturated guitar solo during the extended outro easily makes up for it. “Sway” is more faithful to the Stones’ original version, with the band easily falling into the bluesy groove and laid back rhythm of the early ’70s “Muscle Shoals” sound.
The sweetest song on the album is their cover of John Prine’s criminally underappreciated 1980 gem “Storm Windows.” Isbell stays true to the original while giving it a few flourishes, namely the rich slide guitar solo during the break. Isbell has played the song live with Prine while they toured together and it’s great to hear his band do it the justice it deserves.
The album closes with one of Isbell’s songs from his Drive-By Truckers’ days, “Never Gonna Change.” It’s interesting to hear how different this version is from the original; a clearer focus with more polish, Isbell’s voice stronger and forceful — not that one version is better than the other, just two different sides to the same coin. I love that fact that you can hear his guitar strings jangle through his vocal mic when he strums the chords at the beginning of the song; it’s yet another reminder that you’re hearing every nuance of the band, studio noise and all.
The packaging, like the album, is barebones and without frills. Normally this would be a knock against the quality, but for this record it fits the theme perfectly. The sleeve itself is heavy card stock, with a photo of the taped-on (I presume) lacquer label on the front and various photos of the band and engineers in session on the back. Looking through the pictures, I’m a big fan of Isbell’s The Excorcist T-shirt, but an even bigger fan of his Fender Telecaster that was most likely tuned to open G and used on “Sway.” The record itself is on 180-gram black vinyl with a white label denoting the tracks and album title.
No download code is included, but if so it would seem to contradict the purpose of this release; to give the listener an all analog experience, start to finish.
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit’s “Live From Welcome to 1979” will be available on Saturday, April 22nd at your local independent record store.