Anderson East emerges from side stage just in time to grab the microphone and give it a windmill twirl before singing the opening lines of “Sorry You’re Sick,” the energetic, Ted Hawkins-penned clap-along from his new album, Encore.
With his hard-charging band laying down the driving beat and joyous horns blowing the melody, he reaches into the audience like a preacher leading his congregation. The capacity crowd at the intimate Duling Hall in Jackson, Mississippi, heeds the altar call with hands up, heads bobbing and voices shouting.
It’s a Tuesday night, but for East, it may as well be Sunday morning.
“That’s my church,” he tells Rolling Stone Country before the show. “I’m trying to get something really big out of it – getting musically to a place to where I feel justified, like I’m actually at the right place in the universe. I need that in my life.”
Since dropping Encore (Low Country Sound/Elektra) in January, East and his six-piece band have brought the gospel to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Recorded with Dave Cobb in short bursts between live dates, Encore is a record made for – and practically on – the road. Playing upwards of 300 dates a year inspired East’s crusade to inject Encore with the passion of his live performances.
“Whenever it’s great inside the venue, it’s a different experience. It’s like drug-addict-junkie level – you just want to do it more and more. I wanted to capture that emotion on a record,” says East, whose passionate respect for the live stage even prompted him to call out Garth Brooks for lip-syncing at last November’s CMA Awards.
On Encore, East’s influences meld seamlessly, stacking the album with Stax-worthy R&B grooves, gospel-blues ooohs and aaahs, surging keys and blasting brass. The bombastic swagger of first single “All on My Mind,” penned with Ed Sheeran, and the stomping chart-climber “Girlfriend,” combine East’s love of tweed-toned Southern soul with cleverly offbeat vocal lines and arrangements.
“King for a Day,” written with Chris and Morgane Stapleton, is a lilting lovers’ song, while Willie Nelson’s “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces” is delivered as classic soul with a Joe Cocker-worthy vocal performance. “Cabinet Door,” a sparse, guitar-and-keys affair, finds East channeling Ryan Adams, who shows up to play guitar on “This Too Shall Last.”
Dave Cobb, who brought East to his Low Country Sound label after hearing him at Nashville’s Bluebird Café, says the point of Encore was to push every song and performance, using Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen and Van Morrison as touchstones.
“We weren’t limiting ourselves to a three-minute pop song,” says Cobb, who also produced East’s 2015 breakthrough Delilah. “It was about whatever is the most impactful, heartfelt thing we could possibly do, and we followed that lead.”
Before the show East stands at center stage, barely recognizable in a black hoodie and tortoise-shell Warby Parker frames, his flop-top curls shoved under a crimson ‘Bama cap. The bespectacled bandleader listens intently to each player as they run through “Girlfriend” a second time, head bowed in concentration, pausing only to deliver his nimble vocals.
“I never really had the goal of being the artist,” he says later. “My day job was a recording engineer, and I really loved writing songs. So I was like, hell, if I can get a publishing deal, that would be amazing.”
East soaked up the music around him growing up in Athens, Alabama, from country, gospel and Americana to jam bands like the Grateful Dead and Phish, from whom he learned to love improvisation. He lived just upriver from the Muscle Shoals scene, but its influence didn’t take hold right way – even though he played a gig at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio as a teenager for an audience that included the famed Swampers.
Working at a local record store in Athens led him to discover the soulful side of Americana, and soon he was sinking his wages right into his record collection.
“I was getting Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, [thinking], ‘Who are these people?’ I had no clue,” he says. “That was the music that really grabbed me and made me feel good. I just wanted to learn how that sound was [made].”
East tuned his ear for production while studying music engineering at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, where he met friend and frequent collaborator Aaron Raitiere. After moving to Nashville, he worked in studios to pay the bills but itched to write songs.
“Being in Nashville for 10 years before having the opportunity to tour around and play music, you’re just sitting around with a bunch of other songwriters all day,” he says. East grew comfortable with the casual, collaborative scene where he could work with Stapleton, Raitiere, his girlfriend Miranda Lambert and other songwriters over pizza and beer.
“I’ve got buddies who pretty much write by themselves, like Jason Isbell. That’s just not my process, because I tend to get really dark. I did that for so long, thinking a true artist has to find this knotted-up version of themselves and untangle it within a song. I would much rather have fun doing this thing that I love in every aspect.”
The lights dim and East leads the band through a set heavy on Encore cuts, strumming an acoustic guitar behind them on “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces” and leading the crowd in a sing-along on “All on My Mind.” He trades solos with guitarist Scotty Murray on “This Too Shall Last,” ending with a jammy run of dual-guitar harmonies. But he saves his finest moment – “House Is a Building,” the album’s centerpiece – for the end.
“I wanted to be able to make a record that [was] grandiose and also incredibly intimate,” he says. “I think [‘House Is a Building’] does all of it as one piece of music. That was when I knew I had the period at the end of the sentence.”
East and his band build the song’s tension, his vocals gliding effortlessly from hushed and husky to strained and soaring on waves of blue-eyed soul. As the music crashes into its finale, East again gets up-close with the crowd, riding the song’s coda – an encore within a song, as Cobb puts it – before exiting offstage the same way he entered.
“I find more and more reasons of what that song means, and I think the lyric sums it up,” he says. “I mean, we’re sitting on a bus in a parking lot and it’s like, ‘I’m home.’ Because I genuinely feel at home onstage.”
For the grandson of a preacher, raised in church singing in youth choir, performing these songs live holds the key to something bigger, more personal. It’s where the disarmingly casual artist can appease the inner perfectionist talking back to him.
“When you spend a lot of energy and time making a record – especially ones [where] we don’t auto-tune things, we leave the ugly bits – [the stage] is the only place you can go to fix those ugly bits. It’s a chance to redeem yourself. I like that.”