AN OPEN LOVE LETTER TO THE DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS
3/15/2005, Live at Tipitina's, New Orleans, LA (Live show)
The Dirty South Tour - Live at the 40 Watt Club (DVD)
(New West Records)
I am proudly among the many as declaring the Drive-By Truckers as the best rock band going nowadays. Like no one else, they blend superb sensitive musicianship with balls-out rawk, and some of the most honest, intelligent lyrics you’ve ever heard uttered in the name of Southern Rock. Their name got on the map via Southern Rock Opera, their 2002 double CD song cycle dealing with the myths and truths surrounding Lynyrd Skynyrd, and being truly from the South. It takes the stereotypes head on, accepts its lumps where they are due and offers up not an apology or justification of Southern racism (markedly mentioning that “racism is everywhere but its convenient to play it with a Southern accent” on their two song exploration of the legacy of George Wallace) As a Louisiana man myself, I can readily identify with having to reconcile the accusations foisted upon my home state. If the country is seen as an upright container, there is something to be said that the grit shakes out to the bottom, but remember, the tastiest part of the stew is always at the bottom of the pot. And at least I’m not from Florida. We don’t even claim Florida.
I caught my heroes at a Jack Daniels Studio No. 7 secret promotion event (it was unadvertised by the venue, band and label, and admission was only by tickets given out by minions dispatched from Lynchburg and in our case, my wife’s astute monitoring of the DBT email list) at the fabled New Orleans nightclub where my indie rock youth was spent seeing every band that braved the heat and the bad roads to get their gumbo on. The small crowd, grooving on the fact that fortune had smiled thereupon us, was into it, but not exactly the true believers to which the DBT is probably accustomed. Nonetheless, the greatest band in the fruited plane rocked for nearly 2 hours straight, with only the requisite give-us-some-love encore feeder.
I had been prepared to experience the full Trucker experience, copious stories from lead Trucker Patterson Hood, brilliant cover tunes, the music ranging from gut wrenching solo pieces to full band juggernauts, but the unit decided to forego that and straight up rock. Hood is such a perfect front man: vulnerable, engaging, theatrical, literate, that I didn’t really understand that the band has in fact three front men, also all lead guitar, effectively sharing the spotlight and leadership duties. Mike Cooley, Patterson’s running partner of eons, co-attendee of a spectacle brilliantly depicted in the alarmingly heartwarming “The Night GG Allin Came to Town” in their second album Pizza Deliverance. (Here lies the brilliance of the DBT, Who would’ve ever thought you could write a sweet song revolving about GG Allin?), acts as the crusty, hardened voice of the band, his tales of broken love and drunken abandon cutting to the bone. He looked all the part of haggard junior high math teacher, shocking his students with a tale of waking up drunk on the floor without a blanket in his brilliantly delivered “Love Like This.” Baby-faced Jason Isbell, who I was shocked to learn is the creator and singer of many of my favorite DBT tunes like the anthem “Outfit” and “Decoration Day” (title track of their 2004 album, penned by Isbell on his third day in the band) tore the shit out of his Les Paul, trading Rock god antics with Hood, who delivered the best moment of the show, a protracted rendition of “Company I Keep” momentarily transforming the bar-band classic into a sensitive minimal hymn to recklessness, for kicking right back into it.
The three-lead-guitar onslaught could be a nightmare in a less professional and dexterous unit, but that night inside Tipitina’s dilapidated walls, it became a three headed hyrdra of rock-n-roll, girding their songs in an often dizzying miasma of amplified power. I have oft been carried away by the band’s imagery and atmosphere of regret and jubilation, but I was totally unprepared to be swept up in the maelstrom of their physical sound. Honestly, I’ve never heard a band make so much noise so elegantly. It was a transformative moment, somehow making my favorite band even favorite-er.
A moment of praise should be offered to Shonna Tucker, the sole woman in this band of man-boys, and bass playing anchor to this ship of fools. She had the difficult task of keeping these songs going and recognizable whilst Hood, Cooley and Isbell engage in hilarious rock theatrics. She defiantly bopped along through the show keeping everything in check. Drummer Easy B Brad Morgan has the same task, preferring to keep at work behind the kit as he propels this amazing band to the end of abandon, reeling them back in before the bus careens oncoming traffic.
By now, you are wondering how you may also meet the Southern Buhdda on the road, and might be kicking yourself for not going when they passed through your town, like I was when I missed them here last year. Never fear, since the two The Dirty South CD release gigs at the equally legendary 40 Watt club in Athens, GA are preserved on the first DBT live DVD. Here they are, fresh from recording the album, tearing through its magnificent brace of songs, albeit with more faith to the sonics of the studio work rather than opting to use them as a platform on which to mount the destruction of universe via geetar and distortion pedal. Outside of that, the DVD is faithful to the concert I describe above.
The band is ridiculously tight, imbuing each song with as deep a reverence for being Southern as it comes. Album highlights like the “The Buford Stick” and “Tornadoes” resonate with you like a thunderclap. Patterson Hood is in great form, precluding the thesis statement “The Southern Thing” with a tale of his great-grandfather who was shot clean through at Shiloh and lived. The DVD contains many backstage moments, showing the band to be congenial, loving and humble that they have gotten where they are. Right before kicking into my favorite song of theirs, “Marry Me”, Cooley, a Universal Life Church minister of a week, officiates a marriage on stage. C’mon, how can you not love this band? So many acts have tried to bank on their Americana fetishes, but these people really believe in it, and act as the Red Cross offering much needed relief for a continually icy indie music world.
“Goddamn Lonely Love” is given a transcendent turn by Isbell, followed up by a raging rendition of “Lookout Mountain” and there are many stories and great songs and rock moments, so I won’t ruin it for you. It is a beautiful thing to have seen a show and then see an amazing live DVD of the very same tour. Do yourself a favor and get some Drive-By Truckers, they will restore your faith in the redemptive powers of rock ‘n roll.