REVIEW + PHOTOS: Jason Isbell w/ Robert Ellis at Off Broadway – February 10th, 2014

On Monday, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit along with violin virtuoso Amanda Shires took over Off Broadway for a stellar, sincere performance played to a sold-out audience. The crowd was polite, enthusiastic, and diverse; aging DBT fans staked their claim up front the moment the doors opened. “Smart move,” I said to the guy dead center stage holding a beverage in both hands at 7:05, almost an hour before showtime. “They’re Cokes,” he said, “and they’re for my daughter.” And so I, foot in mouth, had a moment of realization about the type of audience Isbell has cultivated and continues to grow over the years. The old fans stuck around, with fervor. The new ones can get rides from their dads to the shows.

He’s always been an adept songwriter, but the Isbell who crooned through his stirring “Dress Blues” at the end of the evening on Monday wasn’t the guy who played it on the same stage three years earlier. Much has been written about Isbell’s journey to sobriety and his marriage to Shires. But it’s in his live performance where these stories come to life. On stage, Isbell and his band are vibrant, on point, and at times outwardly joyful. Much of Isbell’s song catalog is gorgeous and heavy. A healthy and content performer, however, provides lightness to otherwise dark tunes. It was a triumphant evening – as I suspect most evenings on this tour have been – and it’s too rare an occurrence that an artist fends off his demons with life and love intact.  St. Louis seemed proud to stand in front of Jason Isbell on Monday at Off Broadway. We wish him many happy returns.

All photos by Jess Luther (

Jason Isbell. All photos by Jess Luther. 

Sadler Vaden [l] and Jimbo Hart [r] of the 400 Unit.

Chad Gamble of the 400 Unit.

Amanda Shires.


Robert Ellis did more than his part to warm the room for Isbell and Co. A seemingly natural charmer, Ellis’ playful demeanor onstage disguised, at first, some devastating finger-picking. Less than halfway through the set, those in the front rows shook their heads and exchanged glances after each solo: “What the hell was THAT?!”, we were all thinking.

Ellis might be a player’s player, but dude can write some lyrics, too. See “Houston”, a bittersweet swan song to Ellis’ hometown. Or “Steady As The Rising Sun”, a warm, traditional ballad led on Monday by Will Van Horn’s nimble pedal steel work. “Steady” provided a paradoxical moment: there was Ellis, a debonair young guitar gun playing old country in dark denim and special edition Air Force Ones. If Robert Ellis is the future of alt-country, the future is fine. His record, The Lights From the Chemical Plant, came out this week, and for my money, it’s worth yours.


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