The night the Drive-By Truckers came to town the wind blew so hard you could hear it roaring, even inside. There had been a tornado watch since early afternoon and stoplights wavered in the gusting air.
Drive-By Truckers + Heartless Bastards
30 Mar 2005: The Highdive Champaign, IL
The band opened appropriately with a song about tornadoes blowing a Southern town away. Similar tall tales are what Drive-By Truckers music is all about: Southern anomalies, the duality of love and hate, rock ‘n’ roll. In “Let There Be Rock” (the song with which DBT closed the show) Patterson Hood screams, “I never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd but I sure saw Molly Hatchet,” declaring without falter that even bad rock can save your life.
The Truckers are powered by a songwriting triumvate: Hood, Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell. All three of them kick out tough songs about life, love, death, and burning out in the South. While DBT’s songs are exclusively set in the South, the stories—the hopes and dreams, the downfalls, the lives—are about simple humanity (as if humanity is actually simple). They are delivered in an honest voice, the drawl of the omniscient good ol’ boy in the sky shining light on Southern characters. Like the Erskine Caldwells of the world, these stories feature Southern people living in the South, but their subject is tuned to a grander scheme.
Jason Isbell’s “Outfit” is perhaps the band’s finest moment, the song contextualizing a Southern mentality with a loving and ironic tone. As soon as Isbell’s vocals broke the between-song air I remembered what exactly is so great about the Drive-By Truckers. The song’s chorus boasts:
Don’t call what you’re wearing an outfit,
Don’t ever say your car is broke,
Don’t worry about losing your accent,
A Southern man tells better jokes.
Have fun but stay clear of the needle,
Call home on your sister’s birthday,
Don’t tell ‘em you’re bigger than Jesus,
Don’t give it away.
If not the band’s best song, “Outfit” is representative of what’s so great about the Drive-By Truckers. The band is full of the ass-kicking rock sound of Skynyrd and the simultaneously ironic and profound penmanship of John Prine. Aside from telling great stories, the band’s songs are largely thought provoking, like a good canonical text, the proverbial rock ‘n’ roll storybook in many installments, sitting around a fireplace with Hood, Cooley, and Isbell in smoking jackets, pipe smoke with whiskey or cheap beer on their breath.
To be a critic (I supposedly am one, after all), DBT loses most of their charming country jangle in the live environment, the two and a half to three hour marathons of Southern rock anthems. The band’s records, especially 2003’s Decoration Day, trade between electric rock stomps and more gentle tracks laden with acoustic and pedal steel guitars. DBT creates electric mayhem in the live forum, with (very similar) guitar solos in every song. Even on the longest record this might be tolerable, simply because of the different atmosphere latent in the series of recorded songs. Live, however, every song is played in the same environment, and therefore becomes a beast of burden; a long-winded trial of patience.
By the time the hour-long encore rolls ‘round, the band loses the less dedicated, and some twiddle their thumbs at so many songs played in the same key, with the same three chords.
Frankly, the show is a hell of a lot to swallow. I admit that much is true. But I’ll be damned if the experience of hearing a band tear through pieces of its entire back catalog isn’t a great one, especially to one familiar with the extent of said catalog. The Truckers live show is all about inner-balance, in some ways: the ability for you to balance what you can stand and what you can’t and the band’s ability to somehow cater to that. I loved the show, and it would take two hands to count the people I knew there who also did. But the same goes for those who were turned off by the show’s length and breadth.
And all along I feel kind of bad for Heartless Bastards, a dirty rock trio who opened the night to a belittlingly small crowd (the band went on fifteen minutes before even the ticketed start time). As people trickled in asking why the show had started, simply confused, Heartless Bastards tore through a set of songs from their current Fat Possum release, Stairs and Elevators. In some ways, Heartless Bastards was as perfect a band as any to open for DBT (though it’s this reviewer’s opinion that a band who plays three hours should not have an opening act), the band boasting a power-trio composure led by vocalist/guitarist/pianist Erika Wennerstrom, who possesses a sultry voice that rock ‘n’ roll has been quietly yearning for quite some time. HB’s songs are tight and bluesy, creating a musical environment built around Wennerstrom’s brawny voice. Despite my own opposition to any band opening for the Truckers, Heartless Bastards earned a lot of fans.
We trickled out of the club and the town was still standing. Above us lightning still bounced through the clouds in the sky. Not much more than a few drops of rain fell that night. No tornadoes. No destruction. Just a bunch of rock-filled fans streaming into the damp spring air.
I’ll be damned if I didn’t create a tall tale inside my head that night, the tall tale of the Drive-By Truckers and their musical legacy. This day and age, a band like the Truckers will never get radio play, and probably won’t sell a million records. But it’ll be a cold day down beneath when they’ll ever change for anybody. For better or worse, it’s the Trucker way.