The Drive-By Truckers, Smith’s Olde Bar, Atlanta- 5/1
With three guitars in flight on just about every song, the Drive-By Truckers can jam like the devil. But they can also get things done on a tight schedule with songwriting this good, you can still say a lot in a half hour. With some time to kill on Saturday afternoon before their gig at Atlanta's Music Midtown, DBT turned up a few blocks away in Smith's Olde Bar for a short but wide-ranging acoustic set full of revenge, jilted brides, fast cars, and shout-outs to Southern icons ranging from Richard Petty to the Wilson Dam.
Southern gothic is a good enough description for the canvas the Drive-By Truckers like to use, but tableaus and characters that have become punchlines in other corners are carefully mined in DBT's songs until revealed as their full-blooded selves, far from the paper-thin caricatures and clichthat turn up in less observant works. What DBT knows is that behind all the redneck gags are real lives and real stories, and that a patient eye can reveal material as dense and rich and valid as any piece of the American fabric. Sometimes humorous, sometimes heartbroken, sometimes both, the landscape of the Drive-By Truckers is equal parts Eudora Welty and "The Dukes of Hazzard," and while some may accuse DBT of having both lead feet and lead wings, this is a band that can take you places. When Mike "Stroker Ace" Cooley, singing like some cross between Ronnie Van Zandt and Mick Jagger, belts out "before I could walk, I had a wrench in my hand," the sketch is simple and direct and perfect; you can practically smell the axle grease.
Seated from stage right to left at Smith's were guitarist Jason Isbell, guitarist Patterson Hood, drummer Brad Morgan, bassist Shonna Tucker, and guitarist Cooley, and they lined up enough cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon to make Frank Booth weep and ambled through seven songs, five from last year's "Decoration Day:" the bittersweet confessional "My Sweet Annette," Cooley's "Marry Me," aching fatherly advice for life on the road in "Outfit" ("have fun and stay clear of the needle / call home on your sister's birthday"), "(Something's Got To) Give Pretty Soon," and "Sink Hole." It was a stripped-down, all-business set from a band that's pretty stripped down to begin with, free of frills and fanfare. After my first exposure to the Truckers last September, I did catch some heat for my reaction, perceived by some to be overawed, inauthentic, and even hung with the dreaded tag of "fluffing" in some of the internet's more disreputable neighborhoods, but I care not, because I'm here to say I feel the same way about DBT acoustic eight months later as I did about the plugged-in version back then.
Make no mistake, this is a polarizing band, and you may be turned off by some of their scruffiest and ragged edges. But there's some real poetry and pride in the writing, and these musicians have chops. Then again, maybe I'm biased; I am a child of the south after all. If you're inclined to see southern living as something more than a Mayberry joke, I recommend a listen. If you're still not impressed, if you still think I'm "fluffing," tell you what: just give a listen to "Marry Me." "Rock n' roll means well," Cooley sings, "but it can't help telling little boys lies." Now find me another band with three guitars that can write a more vital line than that. Then we'll talk.