Four decades removed from Cheap Trick at Budokan, Frampton Comes Alive! and Alive! from Kiss, the age of the live album holding cultural currency has long passed. While these landmark albums helped introduce the artists to larger audiences, the “live” aspect of these releases has always been a false conceit. Consisting of songs recorded on multiple nights, at various venues or even during a span of months, these long-treasured artifacts are more a collection of curated live takes mixed and mastered with the aim of painting the bands in the most positive light.
Today, the announcement of such a release can reek of a contractual obligation, a cash grab or outright vanity on part of the band in question. It’s fair for fans to approach a new live album with a heavy dose of skepticism, understanding their listening experience will not be the same as those who were there in the moment. All hail the Internet and its easy access to bootleg recordings bearing technical difficulties, forgotten lyrics, crowd noise and bad behavior.
Seeking to add its own exclamation point to the canon of iconic live albums, Athens, Georgia’s Drive-By Truckers usher forth It’s Great to be Alive! Disregarding the disingenuous duality of the live thing, It’s Great to be Alive! is a 35-song compendium recorded during a three-night stand at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium in November 2014. Packaged and sequenced as “a sort of ultimate live DBT collection”, anyone who has attended a DBT show in the last decade will immediately feel at home from the outset with the opening live trifecta of “Lookout Mountain”, “Where the Devil Don’t Stay” and the gut punch of “Sink Hole”.
Liberally drawing from 2014’s English Oceans, the latest iteration of Drive-By Truckers — Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, Brad Morgan, Jay Gonzalez and Matt Patton — cull the band’s back catalog of 16 years, delivering live chestnuts “The Living Bubba”, “Uncle Frank” and “Buttholeville”; reviving “Box of Spiders” from 1999’s Pizza Deliverance with Hood recounting family tales from the Great Depression; and reminding listeners of “Gravity’s Gone” and “A World of Hurt” from the all-but-forgotten A Blessing and a Curse, deriving the album’s title from lyrics from the latter. Pre-dating DBT, “Runaway Train”, a song from Hood and Cooley’s Adam’s House Cat days circa 1987, is covered for the sake of posterity.
With no formal encore announced, the closing sequence of It’s Great to be Alive! differs little from recent live shows. For a band that’s traditionally shunned set lists, the closing moments of dates from the past year have been populated with songs from 2001’s Southern Rock Opera. It’s Great to be Alive! follows suit, featuring “Shut Up and Get on the Plane”, “Angels and Fuselage” and “Zip City”, before allotting each band member their own moment in the spotlight on an extended version of “Grand Canyon” from English Oceans, the band’s tribute to crewmate Craig Lieske, as the house lights rise to a wall of feedback.
The only whiff of studio handling comes via the album’s sequencing. Preceding Hood’s salutation to the crowd on “The Righteous Path” from the second night, the usually stoic Cooley gets the first word, prefacing “Made Up English Oceans” with a tale of president Carter’s 1980 campaign visit to Tuscumbia, Alabama, in which the KKK held their own rally. Acknowledging the festivities at the close of “Girls Who Smoke”, Hood tips his hand to the song being from the third night, momentarily piercing the veil of continuity.
Credited with two performance releases to date (2000’s Alabama Ass Whuppin’ and Live from Austin, TX, a CD/DVD package from 2009), in Hood’s words It’s Great to be Alive! is to serve as the band’s “definitive live album.” Casting aside any misgivings about the artifice of the format, “the idealized set list” of It’s Great to be Alive! celebrates the band’s history while highlighting the simpatico of its current members that can’t be captured on studio recordings. By employing horns for these shows, the band adds a new layer of sound to songs old and new such as “Marry Me”, “Mercy Buckets” and “Shit Shots Count”. Gone are the slide guitar of Jason Isbell and pedal steel of John Neff; those spaces now filled by keys provided by Jay Gonzalez, adding a touch of soul to staples “Tornadoes” and “Goode’s Field Road” while anchoring newer songs such as “First Air of Autumn”, “Pauline Hawkins” and the galloping “Made Up English Oceans” which puts the rhythm section of Brad Morgan and Matt Patton through their paces.
For a band that’s made their name and living on the road, showering listeners with an endless stream of rock, It’s Great to be Alive! is the modern blueprint for live albums. While unlikely to reach the commercial heights of live albums from the ‘70s, the Drive-By Truckers show their peers how it should be done in the here and now. Consider It’s Great to be Alive! a formal invitation to the perpetual Rock Show that is the Drive-By Truckers.