There will be no teases here. You won’t have to wait to get to the last line of the review; I’ll spare you the drama. Simply put: the Drive-By Truckers are one of the best live bands operating today. Now that the mystery is gone, how about some justification for this lofty claim?
1 Jan 2005: Bowery Ballroom New York
First off, the band’s aesthetic. They charge ridiculously low prices for tickets. The t-shirts, et cetera at the merch booth are also priced within reason. They never play for less than two hours at a clip (most times, more). They give you just enough stage patter to let you know that they’re there but they don’t waste a lot of time. They give the impression every time they play an old song that they’re playing it for the first time. And, oh yes… they rock. Well, I’m understating it a bit it’s more like THEY ROCK!
This was technically the quintet’s second set of the night. On New Year’s morning they did a 2 am at the Bowery Ballroom (Patti Smith rang in the New Year there). A mere 21 hours later, D-BT was back on stage playing to a new sea of faces. The sold-out performance had its fair share of old fans and curiosity seekers alike. (Two guys standing right in front of me told me that they never saw the band before, but for $20, it was worth a shot.) Of course, diehards—beers in hand—were ready to party. And as usual, the band didn’t disappoint.
The best band to compare the Drive-By Truckers to is Lynyrd Skynyrd. Not only do the Truckers’ four guys and a girl come from the South, but three albums prior, they did a two-CD set tribute to the legacy of Skynyrd (Southern Rock Opera). The similarities include a three-guitar attack, not unlike a trio of sonic assault rifles, and a catalog of intelligent lyrics. Each guitarist contributes to the band’s growing repertoire. Whether it be Patterson Hood’s in-your-face lyricism, the smoother-edged, but no less intense words of Jason Isbell, or the expert storytelling of Mike Cooley, it’s all about keeping it real. Also, keep in mind the underrated rhythm section, bassist Shonna Tucker (Isbell’s better half) and drummer Brad Morgan. The lower end of the band’s spectrum is what props up the guitars and keeps the power and passion going.
Playing a mix of songs from their three most recent releases, the band chose to focus mostly on last year’s The Dirty South, opening with Cooley’s “Where the Devil Don’t Stay.” The newer numbers were well received, but long-time staple “Lookout Mountain” was at the top of the list.
The crowd surged noticeably when the band broke into songs such as “Sink Hole” and “Marry Me” (both from Decoration Day). “Dead Drunk and Naked,” from Southern Rock Opera was an audience sing-along. And, not to be outdone in terms of the party atmosphere, the band passed around a bottle of whiskey between songs as all five partook in the New Year’s celebration.
In a world where computers dictate the “next big thing” (smirk) in music and where bands have to justify high ticket prices for live shows by actually (gasp!) putting on a show, it’s great to see bands like the Drive-By Truckers flip the collective bird to the music establishment.
The only sad thing is that the band is not getting more accolades, but then word of mouth is the best kind of advertising. Go take a look at damn near any critic’s 2004 year-end best-of list, and you’ll see The Dirty South listed (it was number eighteen on Popmatters’ year-end list). It’s there for a reason. Seeing the Drive-By Truckers live offers more wood for the fire. You’re not going to get smoke machines, fancy lights, or lasers. What you’re going to get is at least two hours of solid, ass-kicking music performed by five people who are passionate and committed to their craft. And just to put a personal reference point on this, your humble reviewer saw 27 different shows in 2004. However I purchased only one concert T-shirt as a remembrance of an amazing show: the Drive-By Truckers. And yes, I wear it proudly.
Oh, and those two curious guys? They bought shirts too.