With five superb studio albums behind them, the Drive-By Truckers have emerged as one of the finest American rock bands of the past decade, as each release not only has been met with critical acclaim, but has resulted in a steadily growing fanbase. Late ‘90s records Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverance were two fine examples of pure, unadulterated, rough-hewn rock ‘n’ roll, brimming with rowdiness, sincerity, humor, and passion. 2001’s epic double album Southern Rock Opera had the Athens, Georgia band coming into their own, a highly ambitious, and ultimately very meditation on life, love, rock music, and what leader Patterson Hood describes as “the duality of the Southern thing”. Subsequent releases have proved to be just as strong, be it the pensive, brooding, emotionally raw Decoration Day, or the amped-up ferocity of The Dirty South. As good as each and every one of those albums are, though, longtime followers of the band always tell new listeners, “If you think the album is good, just wait ‘til you see them live.”
It’s time for me to fess up: I have never had the chance to see the Drive-By Truckers live. Yeah, for all their touring (they average more than 200 shows per year), the band still has yet to play every nook and cranny of North America, and those fans who were unable to witness the long, exhausting, beer-drenched, three hour marathons that the Drive-By Truckers consistently deliver, have been left to rely upon the outstanding 1999 live document Alabama Ass Whuppin’, not to mention a multitude of bootleg shows easily available on bit torrent, for examples of the real concert experience.
For a band with a reputation as being one of the most potent live acts around, it was only inevitable that someone tried to capture that energy on film, and over the course of two nights in late August, 2004, a camera crew squeezed into the crowded confines of the 40 Watt club in Athens and did just that. Recorded during a two-night stand celebrating the release of The Dirty South last summer, the uproariously fun The Dirty South: Live at the 40 Watt is everything fans expect a Drive-By Truckers DVD to be: raw, sweaty, and loud.
Featuring several hand-held video cameras, as well as a couple stationary ones, the concert film does not have the best picture quality, as images tend to be grainy and the lighting in the small club is rather dim most of the time, but the dicey visuals seem a perfect match with the sound, once the band kicks into high gear. Excellently produced by longtime DBT engineer (and former member of Sugar) David Barbe, the audio captures the energy of the music very well, the roaring five channel surround mix especially worth hearing. Being a CD release party, the band places heavy emphasis on The Dirty South, and they obviously relish playing the new stuff, as “Where the Devil Don’t Stay”, “The Day John Henry Died”, “Goddamn Lonely Love”, and “Lookout Mountain” all benefit greatly from the live treatment. What older material the band plays is met with joyous responses from the crowd, as the entire crowd sings along to such songs as “Sinkhole” and “The Southern Thing”. As great as the newer material sounds, the real highlights come later on, first with the awe-inspiring live staple “The Living Bubba”, and then on the special “Encore” section of the DVD, where guitarist Jason Isbell delivers a great rendition of Decoration Day favorite “Outfit” (again, with the crowd singing every word), and Hood leading an absolutely searing cover of Jim Carroll’s punk classic “People Who Died”.
The concert film is interspersed with interview segments, and while this tactic often brings concert DVDs to a crashing halt, the clips are brief enough to not be much of a distraction at all (plus, it’s fun to see guitarist Mike Cooley preside over a wedding between two fans onstage). Although it would have been better to include the five-song “Encore” section in the main film, and the sloppy continuity is a bit on the distracting side (here’s a hint: when filming a concert DVD over two nights, wear the same outfits!), those are only minor complaints. The loose, friendly atmosphere the band conveys is palpable; while it’s not quite the length of a usual Drive-By Truckers show, this big ol’ mess of a DVD has nonetheless been worth the wait.