Drive-By Truckers, 40 Watt Club, Athens, GA- 1/10-12
I’m not quite sure why the Lynyrd Skynyrd label has stuck with Drive-By Truckers for as long as it has. Robert Christgau calls the Truckers “Lynyrd Skynyrd’s arty nephews” and refers to the band’s hard rock sound as its “Skynyrd side” in his four star Rolling Stone review of the band’s latest release, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark.
But the oft-used Skynyrd comparison is a tired one and an injustice to the multi-faceted band and its ever-evolving sound. The national press too often labels the Truckers as a “southern rock” act, even while lauding the band’s unique voice. And in truth, few things are more southern than DBT; but their superbly written music – inhabited with darkly poetic characters and backed by virtuoso playing always touches universal themes.
It could be argued that the Athens, GA/Muscle Shoals, AL-based quintet has as much in common with Bruce Springsteen as with Skynyrd. The band’s musical transformation since its last album is more reminiscent of the genre-bending Boss than it is of anything born of a southern rock caricature.
I was recently fortunate enough to see the band perform Brighter Than Creation’s Dark in its entirety at Athens famed Forty Watt club kicking off three nights of remarkable music and benefiting Nuci’s Space, a non-profit resource center for Athens musicians. After a few kind words about the excellent work being done at Nuci’s, front man Patterson Hood announced that the crowd would be privy to “probably the first and only playing of the album in its entirety” a real treat for the hometown folks and hardcore fans alike.
Many of those fans have been skeptical since the Truckers announced last year that they were parting ways with guitarist Jason Isbell. Isbell is a phenomenal guitar player and the few tunes he penned with DBT were fan favorites. Some feared that the band would lose punch in its latest incarnation, in which guitarist/pedal steel man John Neff has replaced Isbell. Neff was a founding member of the band and had resumed touring with the group even before Isbell’s departure most prominently on the acoustic Dirt Underneath Tour. But with the completion of Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, fans will experience the group’s new dynamic in all its amplified glory for the first time.
There is most definitely a new sound to the music and a new energy to the live show. And it is more than just the lineup change or even the very welcome addition of legendary pianist Spooner Oldham, who has become a semi-regular with the band. DBT has long been recognized for its whiskey soaked, high-octane performances and loud guitar work -or as Patterson Hood might say, for putting on the Rock Show. There were those who wondered if the rock show would remain The Rock Show. They can rest assured it has. And its not that Brighter Than Creation’s Dark doesn’t showcase a more refined sound with quieter moments influenced by the Dirt Underneath and featuring more of Neff’s pedal steel it does. But it also features and expands upon – the energetic rock sound that is the band’s bread and butter.
There is indeed more of a country-influenced feel to this album than to any of the band’s recent offerings, seemingly referencing the group’s pre-Isbell work. But Neff’s sound on the steel is more pathos-twinged than twangy. The opening song of both the album and the show, Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife captures Neff’s influence and the band’s new sound perfectly. Haunting and ominous reverberations from Neff’s steel are set against Hood’s true story of the senseless murder of a mother and two young children and the wrecked husband and father who is left behind to cope with the horrendous loss, his lust for vengeance, and the certainty that life is both cruel and absurd. In other words, it’s just what a Drive-By Truckers song is supposed to be; and Freebird it isn’t.
The heart of Drive-By Truckers is really the partnership between Hood and fellow guitarist/songwriter Mike Cooley. With respect to Isbell, who has released an excellent solo album, it’s obvious that Hood and Cooley do just fine without him. Both are remarkable artists, with Hood traditionally being the more prolific writer and Cooley the more jaw-dropping guitarist. But both are gifted and multi-talented performers and both are pure rock and roll. The energy expended in the Truckers live show is amazing. Yet the new album features many quieter, more introspective pieces and the sound of the band is more polished, rehearsed even – a notion foreign to the Isbell-era Truckers. Obviously Hood and company won’t be lead by their fan base and judging by the Forty-Watt shows that’s a very good thing for the fans. Hood has acknowledged that the recording of the new album was a less stressful and more enjoyable experience than recent sessions and there seems to be a renewed sense of joviality amongst the players that is evident from the stage.
And there’s a lot to be happy about. Both Cooley and Hood have written some of their best songs for this album. Fans of the old school, guitar driven work will love Patterson’s “The Righteous Path,” “Goode’s Field Road,” “You and Your Crystal Meth” and the poignant but brutal “That Man I Shot.” Amongst Cooley’s best are “Perfect Timing,” “Bob,”” Self Destructive Zones” and “Checkout Time in Vegas;” the latter based on the early criminal life of Scott Baxendale, a gifted luthier and independent filmmaker who builds many of the band’s guitars and who was in Athens for the 40 Watt shows.
As good as the new songs by Cooley and Hood are the real surprise of the album – and of the show – is the strength of the work from bassist Shonna Tucker. The prevailing thought amongst fans at the 40-Watt seemed to be “where has this been?” as Tucker absolutely killed it on each of the three songs she wrote for Creation’s. Tucker has long since proven herself as a player, but few were aware of her skills as a singer/songwriter. Shonna melted the crowd with her “I’m Sorry Huston,” showcasing a voice and style reminiscent of great female country vocalists of the past. While her “Purgatory Line” is more like a southern fried Mazzy Star, with more great work from Neff lending an evocative, spooky feel. But Tucker’s best is “Home Field Advantage,” a pure rocker that culminates in a guitar-crazed darkness that hits as hard as anything the band has ever done. The last 60 seconds of that song alone is worth the price of admission.
After playing all 19 songs from Brighter Than Creation’s Dark and a quick break, the band retook the stage with Springsteen’s “Adam Raised a Cain.” The Truckers showcase few covers, but seem to pick a good one to Truckerize for each new tour. Past favorites have included Warren Zevon’s “Play It All Night Long” and the Boss’s “State Trooper.” It seems that fans attending the latest tour stand a good chance of hearing “Adam Raised a Cain” as the song made its way into some point of each night’s set list during the three night Athens run.
The repetition of songs on consecutive nights is something that will rub some jamband fans the wrong way. But the Truckers play by their own rules and they will support their new album in the traditional way. They are no more a “jamband” than they are a “southern rock” act but boy do those southern boys (and girl) jam!
Fans of jam music and in truth, fans of any good music would do well to catch Drive-By Truckers on their current tour. The evolution of the music is an inspiration. The band attracted a legion of fans between the recordings of Southern Rock Opera and A Blessing and a Curse many of whom undoubtedly felt possessive of the Isbell-era Truckers. It was easy for fans to fear change, to envision a new feel to the music with the endearing rough edges perhaps becoming polished. But the genius of the Truckers is that they’ve given just that and made it work so well that fans will thank them for it. Think transformation, not alterationand they did it all while making sure the rock show stayed The Rock Show.