Coming from a deeper, more personal and introspective place, "Southeastern" reflects Isbell's first year of sobriety -- achieved after a stint in rehab at the urging of his wife, musician Amanda Shires, his manager, and his contemporary and fellow recovering alcoholic Ryan Adams. Isbell emerged more focused and fit, shedding nearly 40 pounds of whiskey bloat along with much of the emotional baggage of his past.
The Alabama native (from the legendary Muscle Shoals area) was previously most well-known as one arm of the Drive-By Truckers' "three axe attack" and songwriting team, recording, writing and touring with DBT for six years and three albums before leaving in 2007 amid turmoil with the band and his ex-wife, Shonna Tucker, it's former bassist. Fast-forward to 2014, with his newfound sobriety, new love and new album, Isbell is finally poised to receive the recognition he deserves as one of the most prolific American songwriters and musicians today.
Judging by his not one but two sold-out shows this week (at Plush Sunday evening and Off Broadway on Monday), local fans were more than eager to pile on the adoration. This isn't surprising, as St. Louis has had a long love affair with the alt-country genre, being as several of its pioneering acts hail from the region, including "forefathers" Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt and the Bottle Rockets.
The dance floor at Off Broadway was already filled as opener Robert Ellis and the Boys took the stage. Warm and personable, the Houston-native singer/guitarist was a delight. Looking like a hipster cowboy in tight, rolled jeans and leather Nikes, Ellis focused on material from his new album, "Lights From the Chemical Plant" (released today), backed by a tight band spotlighted by pedal steel guitarist Wil Van Horn and electric guitarist Kelly Doyle. Heavy ode to their hometown, "Houston" was a stand out with a surprisingly rocking solo by Doyle. Amanda Shires joined on fiddle for a cover of Kris Kristofferson classic "Help Me Make it Through the Night."
With the venue at full capacity, Isbell took the stage around 9:15 p.m., backed by his long-time band, the 400 Unit, as well as spouse Shires, who remained close by his side the entire show. They opened with "Streetlights," a somewhat-sleepy song from the 2009 album, "Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit."
"The Magician," a plucky tune from his first solo album, "Sirens of the Ditch" provided an opportunity for Isbell and Shires to engage in a little guitar and fiddle showdown. This lighthearted moment was followed by the darker and heavier Drive-By Truckers tune "Danko/Manuel," which Isbell penned for the band's top-selling album, "The Dirty South."
Drummer Chad Gamble's piercing beats stood out on the rocking "Flying Over Water," as the band eased into the first taste of "Southeastern." Following, Isbell paused to introduce keyboardist Derry deBorja (formerly of Son Volt), noting, "Derry's taught me all the ways of St. Louis -- where to go, where not to go, the difference between Velveeta and Provel."
Mid-set Isbell switched to acoustic guitar to dig deep on the bulk of material from "Southeastern," starting with sweet road song "Traveling Alone," his vocals answered by the aching twinge of Shires' fiddle. Isbell's voice is a rich, slightly gruff baritone with just the right amount of Alabama twang combined with a classic rock sensibility. Though his tone is striking, it's the force of emotion pouring through it that resonates.
That emotion reached its high point when the remainder of the band stood back as Isbell, accompanied by only Shires and deBorja, began the stunningly beautiful "Cover Me Up," an extremely personal song of love and salvation. A great hush fell over the audience, save for a few cheers of encouragement as Isbell sang, "I sobered up and I swore off that stuff, forever this time." Midway through the heartfelt tune, the remaining band members joined back in, with Sadler Vaden playing a sweet slide guitar, building to a crescendo as Isbell belted the sexy chorus, "Girl, put your boots by the bed, we ain't leaving this room," as Shires glanced at him lovingly across the top of her fiddle.
He followed this with the equally poignant "Songs That She Sang in the Shower." After picking up the pace slightly with "Relatively Easy," "Different Days" and "Stockholm," emotions once again ran high again as Isbell, Shires and deBorja took on heavy-hearted cancer ode "Elephant."
Not forgetting his roots, Isbell balanced his set by treating old-school Drive-By Truckers fans with a few songs he penned for the band during what was arguably its most creative period, including a thunderous "Decoration Day," providing Vaden a chance to shred on the guitar; as well as "Never Gonna Change," with Isbell playing slide; and set-closer "Outfit."
As an encore, Isbell and Shires covered Warren Zevon's "Mutineer," harmonizing softly into the same microphone, their lips inches apart, in a moment so intimate it felt like no one else was in the room.
War ballad "Dress Blues" provided yet another opportunity for Isbell to shine vocally and on guitar. Props to the sound man because the mix was perfect the entire evening, a crucial factor for music such as this, where every note deserves to be heard with complete clarity.
Knowing Isbell's presence has graced much larger stages, it felt especially fortunate to behold it in such an intimate space as Off Broadway -- the kind of show that stays with you for a very long time. It was the sound of redemption -- a testament to love, perseverance and the power of second chances.