Drive-By Truckers, Roxy Theatre, Atlanta, GA- 9/27
I'd been warned in advance that my face might get ripped off, so I felt kind of ready, but there I stood in the center of Atlanta's Roxy Theatre with my spine dead straight and mouth agape anyway, thinking that this neck of the woods hasn't seen this kind of abuse inflicted on anything or anyone since Ned Beatty and Jon Voight took an ill-advised rest stop on their way down to Aintry and had to get bailed out by an arrow-slinging Burt Reynolds. That's not to say there's anything perverse or depraved about the multi-guitar assault of the Drive-By Truckers, and it's probably illogical to feel sorry for guitars and amps, but watching DBT in full force beating up their gear is a sight to behold and a sound you won't soon forget. Even though the Flying V was played for laughs in This Is Spinal Tap and Boogie Nights, Mike Cooley (one of the band's three lead guitarists and vocalists) wields his without an ounce of irony or satirewith three guitars (and bass) roaring in just about every song, it's all about the six strings with these guys. When he introduced his bandmates towards the end of this show, tri-lead guitarist / vocalist / founder Patterson Hood mentioned that he'd been playing with Cooley for eighteen years, and although I wasn't there when they first plugged in and figured out the wonders of a cranked-up electric, even after just my first DBT show I'm pretty sure that moment ought to rank up there with the greatest events in southern rock since some kids down in Jacksonville, Florida ran afoul of a gym teacher named Leonard Skinner.
Sincerely, watching these boys (Hood, Cooley, and Jason Isbell, alternating lead guitarists and vocalists, backed up by bassist Earl Hicks and drummer Brad Morgan) beat up their instruments for the better part of three hours reminded me in a strange way of one of those Star Trek movies where the USS Enterprise gets pulverized by some badass Klingons or whatever—you might start to wince in sympathy for the battering an inanimate object is receiving before your eyes, but you can’t look away because you don’t want to miss a thrill. But the landscape of the Drive-By Truckers is anything but sci-fi—it’s got a lot more in common with Edgar Allan Poe by way of James Dean and Elvis on some kind of power-chord bender, all blackened tree stumps, cawing crows, and souped-up cars flying down the long gray highway; DBT has one foot planted firmly in the swamp and the other in the hood, and there are a lot of truck stops and big rock arenas in between. The vibe of the Drive-By Truckers is that of Johnny Cash, Lucinda Williams, Neil Young, Humble Pie, the Civil War, Merle Haggard, and all of the tobacco fields and trailer parks east of the Mississippi and south of the Mason-Dixon dumped into a blender and set to spin on eleven; DBT is one of those bands for whom it’s never too late in the set to light up a fresh cigarette or take a shot of whiskey, and one of their shows feels a little like some long-lost members of Molly Hatchet wandered in out of the wilderness, got a blood transfusion from the Geto Boys, and sat around drinking Jack and listening to nothing but Boston, Wet Willie, Kansas, and Blue Oyster Cult while they recuperated. I never knew him, but even after one show I feel safe proclaiming that Lester Bangs would’ve gone absolutely nuts for the Drive-By Truckers, and if you think that’s faint praise, you just haven’t been to a DBT show yet; if you think this band is all guitar heroics and no street cred you’ve just never heard Patterson Hood testify on the epic "Eighteen Wheels of Love."
The Truckers strode onstage here at their almost-hometown (they formed in Alabama, but three of the five band members have since relocated to alt-rock epicenter Athens, just an hour or so to the north), perhaps after a couple of shots of Jack or Jim Beam and a cup or two of black coffee, cigs blazing and guitars slung low and "Damn, It Feels Good to be a Gangsta" ambling out of the house speakers, and if there’s anything they need to work on, it’s their entrance; it may have just been a function of the venue or a one-time minor equipment glitch, but there was some fiddling with the gear and mic testing before the churning storm-cloud first chords of "Tornadoes" landed tonight. Any band with the guts to call one of their albums Southern Rock Opera ought to be a little more authoritative, grandiose, even operatic about taking the stage, but even if their first appearance fell a little short of expectations the technical difficulty wound up being of little import, because the set packed more than enough confidence and straight-ahead, pile-driving, pedal-to-the-floor amplification and reverb to make up for it. As DBT churned through song after song with little if any pause or mercy in between, veering between a cover of the late Cash’s 1957 tune "Give My Love to Rose," the title track of their latest album "Decoration Day," songs about thirsty car engines, and new material like "Carl Perkins’ Cadillac," it felt like standing in the batters’ box for nine full innings of Randy Johnson-in-his-prime fastballs, facing heater after heater after heater—DBT completely and thoroughly owned the place, inside and out, threatening to blow the doors and roof of this theater off and into the stratosphere even as unsuspecting Buckhead club patrons bopped around trying to be seen outside. If there’s a better southern rock name than Patterson Hood, I haven’t heard it, and even though Hood looks like a slightly less punchy ringer for the faded boxer Randall Tex’ Cobb, he and his cohorts hit a lot harder and better. If your ears aren’t ringing and you aren’t a little saddle-sore after a DBT show, you’re probably doing it wrong. The Drive-By Truckers are a capital-R Ride, at least as good as Metallica ever gave way back in the day, and if you haven’t been on the Ride yet, don’t worry, because their sound is too big and a little too scary for places like the cozy little Roxy to hold for much longer. It could be coming soon to an arena near you.