Live at the Shoals Theater 2014

Mike Cooley, Patterson Hood, Jason Isbell

Southeastern Records, 2021

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Singer-songwriter-guitarists Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley founded Drive-By Truckers in 1985, logging 16 years of songs and shows and albums before 20-year-old Jason Isbell joined their band in 2001. At that point the group became a singing-writing-guitar-playing triple-threat and over the next five eventful years proceeded to deliver three of their very finest albums: Decoration Day (2003), The Dirty South (2004) and A Blessing And A Curse (2006). Then Isbell’s combustible combination of burgeoning addictions and prodigious songwriting chops led to his departure from the band for a solo career.

Hood, Cooley and Isbell didn’t initially part on the best of terms, but before long renewed the lasting bond that continues to this day. By 2014 things had been good between them for a while, so when Hood agreed to play at a benefit concert for a hometown friend, he was excited to learn that fellow local son Isbell was on the bill too, and soon invited Cooley to join them.

The sense of this being a special moment was only compounded by the friends’ decision to play without any other backing, as a solo acoustic trio. In this format the group’s vocal harmonies came to the forefront, and if the hometown crowd wasn’t amped up before, the minute they fully comprehended what a treat they were in for, the buzz hit a new crescendo.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

This double-CD album capturing the 24 songs the trio performed that night wouldn’t appear until seven years later, but when it did finally show up in 2021, issued on Isbell’s Southeastern Records label, all you could do is offer thanks to whoever made sure to hit “Record” when the moment arrived. Put simply, it is a thing of beauty: three gifted singer-songwriters at the peak of their powers, trading songs and energy before a livewire hometown crowd.

The song choices are inspired, a travelogue of each man’s best work at the time, all taken from DBT albums other than two Isbell solo tunes. They rotate round-robin style, starting with Hood’s “Tornadoes,” then moving to Cooley’s “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac” and on to Isbell’s “Decoration Day.” And it’s not a set rotation—you never know whose song will be next—but they each get plenty of time in the spotlight.

Here’s the thing, though. The Cooley and Hood songs are really good, further enhanced by the focus the acoustic format puts on their sharply-drawn lyrics. “Tornadoes” and “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac” are great. So are “Heathens” and “TVA” and “Women Without Whiskey” and “Daddy Needs A Drink” and “Grand Canyon” and “Zip City” and the list goes on and on, striking Faulkner-adjacent tales of the modern South rendered with tremendous craft and heart.

Still, even in 2014, even drawing primarily from his days with the DBT, even deferring to his old bosses who occupy 18 of the 24 slots on this album, Isbell’s six songs stand head and shoulders above the crowd. “Decoration Day,” “Goddamn Lonely Love,” “Danko/Manuel,” “Cover Me Up,” “Alabama Pines,” and “Never Gonna Change”? Six of the finest songs any among them has ever played on, presented as an acoustic trio? Come on. It’s small-n nirvana for anyone who’s ever liked an Isbell song. (Based on the audience reactions captured here, the crowd that night appears to have agreed.)

Live At The Shoals Theatre June 15, 2014 captured for posterity a unique one-off event whose like we may never hear again. For fans of Drive-By Truckers and/or Jason Isbell, it’s a spectacular gift to have this show become available. For everyone else, it’s a showcase for two dozen top-notch examples of modern Southern rock, distilled down to their guitars-and-harmonies essence.

Rating: A-

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