Don Chambers/Mike Cooley, 40 Watt, Athens, GA- 2/25; Buster’s, Dahlonega, Georgia- 2/26
The Drive-By Truckers examined the duality of the Southern thing on their acclaimed (and essential) Southern Rock Opera. Never had it been personified quite like this weekend when Mike Cooley, The Stroker Ace of the Trucker troika played in Athens and Dahlonega, Georgia. The former is a home away from home for the countrified story teller with liberal leanings, and the latter; a pretty conservative mountain town where W stickers seem to come standard on the champagne S-10's.
From the world famous 40 Watt where like-minded hipsters request your obscure back catalog to Buster's off the route, where the captivated and intoxicated step up on stage to see if you know any covers. The rest compete with the PA while shooting the shit with friends. There's gotta be a greater sense of satisfaction when you win those types over, even if only for a song or two.
Such was the case with Don Chambers. When solo, his sound is fierce and haunting. Claw hammer banjo backed dirges delivered in a voice that's best described as Dylan meets Waits in South Carolina. When backed by his band Goat the experience is majestic. Friday night in Athens the thinner than anticipated crowd raised their glasses to "Rob Me Blind" and hung on every word of the poignant narrative "Florida Vacation," from the recently released self-titled record (that many in attendance bought when Chambers and Goat opened for the Drive-By Truckers at the 40 Watt a month earlier).
On Saturday he took his guitar and banjo 75 miles north and west. He may have been a little too Athens for most at Buster's, but several songs (most notably "Devil's Bucket" and "Back in the Woods" made undeniable impressions and inspired a few complimentary hoots.
Mike Cooley had the admiration of the Athens crowd long before he took the stage Friday night. He's had it for years. He treated the Trucker Nation to old favorites, most notably "Uncle Frank" and "Panties in Your Purse"
(from the recently re-released Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverance albums respectively). Of course he played the new stuff, "Devil Don't Stay" and the soon-to-be classics "Zip City" and "Highway 72," but he also treated lucky patrons to non-Trucker tunes, "Little Pony and the Great Big Horse"
and other unreleased (and recently written) material. He certainly knows his way around a guitar (even those that aren't cheap and electric)- and within circles this may seem sacrilege, but here's hoping the DBT incorporate a few acoustic- or at least semi-acoustic numbers (back) into the Rock Show. The next night in Dahlonega, Cooley had a new pair of sneakers and played a set list heavy with songs from the last three DBT recordings. He was at ease as soon as the bar owner slash light guy jumped up on a chair to twist and extinguish a few of the brighter bulbs after Cooley's request for "depress me" lighting. Seeing any of the Truckers solo means more of the stage banter they're famous for. The (mostly) true stories that inspire the songs may be Anywhere, USA- but for some reason Cooley and Co. just spin em better. The evening highlight came during and after "Daddy's Cup" where his fast finger work was even more urgent as he hustled to finish the song and get back to the lit cigarette that was hanging on the edge of the table— burning its way towards the red cloth.
"Man, I don't wanna pull a Great White," Cooley dryly confessed. "If I ever burn down a club, please God don't let it be an acoustic gig."
Both nights were intimate and incendiary (you knew that word was coming)- without the threat of flames and evacuation. I've seen half a hundred shows and the records, if not worn out, get borrowed and rarely returned— but seeing Cooley strikeout solo with just a six-string and a cigarette was a first. Let's do it again sometime.