The Drive-By Truckers, The Tabernacle, Atlanta, GA- 11/26
A model for late-bloomers everywhere, the Drive-By Truckers came to screaming three-guitar life as a band with a lot to say and fully aware of lapsed time. True, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley had been off- and on collaborators for well more than a decade by the time the Truckers first hit the road in any form, but it wasn’t until DBT that the guitarists found a recipe worth sustaining. What followed was a cloudburst of potent, critically acclaimed albumsfrom early indie-label releases in the late 90s to the more versatile and accomplished A Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day, and The Dirty South, all three since the year 2000, all full of pungent, brawling tales of tornadoes, trailer parks, old soldiers, and sour mash. It makes sense that DBT have been so prolific in such a short time, since this isn’t a band that does anything halfway. Fittingly, they don’t engender many soft opinions. Few people “kind of” like the Drive-By Truckers.
And that steadfast insistence on doing things their way is where DBT live can be a little problematic. Now well entrenched with their strongest lineup to dateincluding third guitarist / singer / songwriter Jason Isbell, bassist Shonna Tucker, and drummer Brad Morganthe Drive-By Truckers played a Thanksgiving weekend show at the Tabernacle for the second year in a row and poured out a clutch of great songs, only to be almost completely undermined by a sludgy sound mix. The Truckers have fantastic songwriting, and sure, there was plenty of ferocious guitar, but with all three guitarists going full throttle on nearly ever song in poor sound, the songwriting and playing never stood toe-to-toe, and the vocals were often swamped right out of the converted old church. Although it’s probably safe that most people who turned up in the Tabernacle the Saturday after Thanksgiving were at least acquainted with the band, heaven help anyone who came with no idea what to expect. The uninitiated, if there any were in attendance, were left stranded, as though taken on a hair-raising ride in a pickup truck with shot suspension and then left in the middle of some remote rural crossroads without a map and not even enough money for a beer.
And even for the familiar, the show took an unusually long time to warm up. Cooley’s “Zip City” and Hood’s “Puttin’ People on the Moon” would normally be a solid one-two opening punch, but the abrasive edge was curiously lacking on these versions. The new “February 14” rode in on a promisingly punkish drum-guitar riff, but with most of lyrics virtually unintelligible the song rode right off again without making an impression. It really wasn’t until the seventh song of the set, “Shut Up and Get on the Plane,” that DBT seemed to find the traction they were looking for, and from there they burned rubber on “Road Cases,” the Skynyrd-Young opus “Ronnie and Neil,” Isbell’s “Never Gonna Change,” (one of the band’s undeniably great songs) and Cooley’s dark, seething tale of poker n’ moonshine “Where the Devil Don’t Stay.”
Perhaps mindful of their somewhat growing rep as a bit of a one-pitch live band, the Truckers did, to their credit, take some pains to incorporate new instrumentation in their attack and vary their dynamics. Isbell took some turns on keys, and John Neff sat in on pedal steel, adding a more mournful undertone to the more defiant songs, particularly the set-closing “The Living Bubba.” But it just wasn’t quite enough to get this show over the hump.
The band closed “Bubba” with a beautifully bluesy wail of interlocked guitars, finally reaching the intersection where evocative songwriting met instrumental muscle, power and finesse in a unique Southern blend. But there they left the stage, and although they returned for a seven-song encore that included “Lookout Mountain,” “Let There Be Rock,” and “Buttholeville,” but the energy had already drained out of the building into the cold night.
So this year’s performance at the Tabernacle goes down as less satisfying than DBT at the top of their grizzled, whiskey-marinated form. Not a poor show, just a slippery one, hard to hold, and as testimony to the Drive-By Trucker’s ragged, rugged glory, inconclusive at best. Fortunately, with a new album slated for sometime in early 2006, and more shows to come, the road goes on.