- Drive-By Truckers The Dirty South Tour Live at the 40 Watt August 27 & 28, 2004
Exactly what I feared might happen did. As my La-Z-Boy and I dove into the Drive-By Truckers' first DVD release, I began feeling depressed, like if I listen to pop country, at all. Increasingly, I also felt the need to skip some songs in order to finish the DVD in one sitting, but I persevered. I predicted the DVD's effect on me, and fought against it, going in with high hopes. I was able to predict my reaction, because my friend's dad is all about DBT (I just seem to like them) and has more than his share of bootleg videos, which I've had the pleasure to watch, though some were a grind. I've seen old and new shows, good and bad nights, and while the band constantly becomes more taught and vocals are more even with age, they are also constantly uneven. The pervading alt-country themes of Southern-born pain and sorrow wear thin on me, even though I'm from good ol' VA myself.
After footage shot alongside a small-town train-track and introductory snapshots of the band with video of the crowd waiting in line, DBT takes the dark stage, three electric guitarists/singers fronting an unassuming drum and bass team. The 40 Watt gave DBT a break when no one else would look their way. Giving back, they came back for a two-night sold-out tour starter – intended for resale. The DVD is a series of cut and pasted songs (arranged as a set, plus an encore) recorded during the first two nights (CD release party The Dirty South – Aug. 27/28, 2004 at the 40 Watt in Athens, Georgia) of The Dirty South Tour. Humorous and informative backstage commentary from the band is interjected as filler throughout the single set, and really does help break up the songs. For steadfast fans of the band, this is better than any DBT bootleg I've seen and you'll surely play it a lot. For simple treasure hunters out there, this probably isn't necessary in your collection; make sure you're a fan of Drive-By Truckers first.
So, what to moan about? Oh yes, the singing. There is no lead singer, all three guitarists write and take turns singing at lead, while whoever is at sidekick harmonizes. Mike Cooley mans the first microphone ("Where the Devil Don't Cry") while Jason Isbell exposes his slick slide technique. Behind them, Patterson Hood strings along the rhythm on the honed edge bassist Shonna Tucker and drummer Brad Morgan file. Tucker is the strength of the two, her tones are various and timely while Morgan is solidly metronomic. So goes the DBT's better half their musical side. Tucker and Brad serve drunk-to-sedate grooves and the three guitarists manage not to get all knotted together.
Cooley's songs rock-n-roll, so "Where the Devil Don't Cry" was a wise first track to get the blood pumping. No one has time to cool down because changes are coming and the high-hat is clicking. Cooley's voice is rough as a gator's hide and gives life to southern suffering through dark imagery familiar to all three singers' songs. Next in track order is a song with Hood at lead vocals, but since their shows are a series of tradeoffs, and for the sake of a non-schizophrenic review, I'll finish my thoughts on Cooley and continue orderly like. "Carl Perkins' Cadillac" is his next at lead; Isbell's slide solo steals the spot. Cooley's resinous delta moans through "Cottonseed" are made stronger by Isbell's dark electric slide. "Marry Me" makes me think Cooley may be suited for, interestingly, brit-punk fame…he could do it; the drunken guest's (Clay Leverett) harmonies on vocals were way off, but it was a celebration, so OK.
Hood's voice is trying. His first serenade is during "Tornadoes," which, like all of DBT's songs, is wonderful, great poetry. To his credit, while his voice is the least pleasing of the three, the emotion he gravels his road with is appropriate for the barroom brand these guys couldn't shake, were they to try. If you don't expect an angel's voice and can tolerate his delivery, you'll make it through and maybe even enjoy him in the end. In this light, "Puttin' People on the Moon" is a nice society shaker that a prettier voice may have sugar coated too much. The ruffian vocalist masters one of my favorite DBT songs ("Tornado"), and judging by the crowd's reaction, I'm not alone in that opinion. His voice snuggles in and doesn't seem to struggle so much here as on some others. Although its not always this way, "The Buford Stick" falters vocally, which is sad for such a song. He makes up for everything with the next one ("The Southern Thing"). The song follows a story, told by Hood, over minimal plaintive strumming. He says, "In the early 1860s my great-great-granddad got drafted by the Confederate army, and he was none to God-damned happy about it. He was just a poor dirt farmer trying to feed his family and hang onto a little piece of land…" and so continues the story of an oppressed Southerner in the Civil War South who found himself in Shiloh, shot but alive. The tale continues with Hood's birth to teenage parents and his hearing about the war from his grandma and great-uncle, whom he spent much time with. The power of words and the value of familial stories are strong and evident. "This song's about the misunderstood people of the Southland…This song's called The Southern Thing,'" he announces to the audience. "...Ain't about excuses, or alibis, ain't about no cotton fields or cotton-pickin' lies, ain't about the races that cry in shame. To the fucking rich man, all poor people look the same," he angrily muses over southern rock. "Lookout Mountain" hits a rock-n-roll vein they should suck more often. The crowd loves it when Hood tells them (in jest) to "Shut the fuck up" during a story of his and Cooley's meeting, before tearing into "Daddy's Cup." The main set ends with a tribute song by Hood called "The Living Bubba." It celebrates a deceased musician named Gregory Dean Smalley with a story on his life, his need to perform in the face of AIDS and, during the song, the headstrong line, "I can't die now, cause I've got another show to do."
Isbell joined the band in 2001 and, it could be argued, makes the band. He's certainly my favorite of the guitar trio and, this one's not debatable, he's the best singer for sure. "Never Gonna Change" is a big sing-a-long-ready middle digit for anyone who might want to change anyone else, so don't oppose DBT if you expect them to listen. He killed the guitar solo here, no slide this time, and the lyrics say everything about the band's mood, "We ain't never gonna change, we ain't doin' nothing wrong. So, shut your mouth and play along." Get on board or not, they don't seem to care a whole lot. He home runs with "Decoration Day" – usually a good bet. Isbell also added highlights to the DVD with "Goddamn Lonely Love" and "Danko/Manuel" I watched "Danko/Manuel" a few times through before proceeding on with the DVD; it's that good.
The encore is another cut and paste. With Isbell's intro to "Outfit," its apparent he could hang with the Allman Brothers Band, should he have the opportunity, "Women Without Whiskey" is pure southern rock angst, "Shut up and get on the Plane" is punk-rock fury and Nirvana would have covered "Careless" fittingly.
The backstage video segments interjected between songs are pretty entertaining. They focus on various topics such as the veritable who's-who-in-music wall (the backstage wall's been signed by a blur of artists including the likes of Kurt Cobain), band members' first meetings, Cooley performing a marriage onstage and Hood revealing that they never use set lists. "It just happens as it does and there's not much predicting or controlling it," Hood says; I love that. They also reveal that they don't practice. "If you wanna break up a band, practice," says Cooley. I guess you don't have to practice, but real practice could only help I think. They also claim, with straight faces, to listen to a lot of hip-hop on the road. I'll take their word I guess.
The bonus isn't much of a bonus at all. It's just "Never Gonna Change" again, using alternate stage footage, crowd shots and video of people in line. I expect more from a bonus; so should you.
I know mine may seem a mixed message. The DVD is OK (the singing), while great (These guys and a lady rock, scoring some moments of musical cohesion) and bad (the singing) all in one. You probably won't really get into this DVD unless you already like the band (you'd better already be a fan, maybe own more than one of their albums) or raw alt-country in general. Concert energy barely ever translates exactly to recorded media and this is an example of a band that needs to be taken in personally. Basically, you probably already know if you need to buy this and most of you don't really need it.