He used to shoot heroin out back. Now his music draws crowds to the stage.

Singer-songwriter Joe Nester made a triumphant return to Philly.

Joe Nester, right, made his first return to Philadelphia since entering recovery from addiction

Joe Nester, right, made his first return to Philadelphia since entering recovery from addiction

Courtenay Harris Bond / for Billy Penn
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When the Undeniable Tour bus recently pulled up for a show at Voltage Lounge in Callowhill, singer-songwriter Joe Nester suddenly realized that the first time he’d ever used heroin was in the parking lot right behind the venue.

“I was homeless out here,” Nester explained. “I ran these streets for years. This is like God saying that’s where my addiction started, and I come back here to lay to rest any fucking demons I may have had.”

Originally from Delaware, Nester, 34, left the area five years ago to get into recovery in South Florida and eventually signed with the label Recovering Artists Worldwide. Touring with Bobble aka Chris Heinzelmann, Seckond Chaynce, Kase Flow, Marshall Alexander, C.J. Spades and D.J. Strizzo, Nester is part of an effort to spread messages of hope and positivity through a mixture of hip hop, rock and country music.

But Nester was nervous about returning to Philly, he said, where he used to do “anything you can think of” to get money for heroin and where he spent some of his darkest moments, describing Kensington as a “black hole.”

He was also anxious about performing in front of his family members who traveled from Delaware to see him.

Nester with his family

Nester with his family

Courtenay Harris Bond / for Billy Penn

A bittersweet homecoming

Nester recalled a time when he and his friend, Frank Morgan — who was also at the show and is now in recovery — were sleeping in a flophouse one Thanksgiving, and Nester’s father dropped off Boston Market for them.

“Joe and I actually met each other at a methadone clinic,” Morgan said. “I was on methadone, and he was outside selling drugs.” Morgan admits that although he was on medication-assisted treatment, he was not serious at that time about his recovery.

From that moment on, Morgan and Nester became running buddies, driving up and down I-95, boosting baby formula and dove soap that they then sold to bodegas in Philly to get money to buy heroin. They were homeless together for three years. When Morgan got arrested and sent to prison, he lost track of Nester. He also got into the 12 Steps.

It wasn’t until Morgan, also a musician who goes by the name Rem-One, posted a song online and someone commented that he should check out Recovering Artists Worldwide that he found Nester again. “If they didn’t have his name, I don’t think I would’ve recognized him,” Morgan said, recalling that the last time he’d seen his buddy he was about 130 pounds and had no teeth.

At the end of the show, Nester gave a shout out to Morgan, who he is still close to — pointing out their new dentures, Bam!

Then he called his father, William Nester, who had never seen him perform live, to the stage as he sang an acoustic version of one of his most popular songs, “Never Gonna Take My Soul.”

The power of music

“It was really a dark time,” William Nester recalled about his son’s addiction.

“We would get calls all hours of the night, anything from the police to you name it. It was a struggle, but everybody’s glad he got his life changed around. Joe’s come a really long way, and he’s staying positive. I give him all the credit in the world.”

After he entered recovery, Nester was unable to get in touch with his mother, who struggled with mental illness and other issues. Two days before a previous tour, Nester found out she had died.

“I didn’t really have time to process it, so I wrote a song dedicating it to her,” he said. “The last vision she had of me was when I overdosed in her apartment, and they were carrying me off to the hospital.”

Despite this trauma — and the struggle to stay sober — Nester gives off a warm, charismatic aura.

“The whole tour is about positivity and love,” Nester said. “Everywhere we’ve gone they have asked us to come back.”

A tattoo inspired by one of Nester's songs

A tattoo inspired by one of Nester's songs

Courtenay Harris Bond / for Billy Penn

‘He saved my life’

Alicia Garcia, who was in the audience, was in the Navy from 2001-2009 and was deployed to Afghanistan. She said she suffers from PTSD. She struggled with heroin addiction for six years but has managed to rack up three years in recovery. It hasn’t been easy.

“In the last six weeks, I’ve lost three friends, including my ex. On Thursday, I was ready to use, but I walked away.”

Garcia, who lives in Warrington, came to the Voltage Lounge to see Nester, one of her heroes. “He saved my life,” Garcia said about Nester and his music.

Another fan had “Never Gonna Take My Soul” tattooed on her arm.

“It’s very humbling to see people who’ve traveled from West Virginia, Ohio, New York to see me,” Nester said, signing people’s arms at the end of the show. The group was set to perform two final dates in Florida and will return to the area for a show in Baltimore on July 7.

“The urges will always creep up here and there, but I know how to work through them, instead of constantly dwelling on them and going out and getting high,” Nester said. “I love the way heroin makes me feel, but I’ll never go back to it because I’ll lose everything. For me, it would probably be in a matter of days.

“I’m 10 times happier than I ever was on drugs,” Nester added. “People say, ‘You’re literally always smiling.’ That’s really me.”

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