[5 October 2005]
The festival-goer’s dilemma is defined by the inability to see every band you want because of time conflicts. Thankfully, the people who coordinate the hugely popular Austin City Limits Festival have taken our pleas to heart and worked out a compromise: festival-style shows during the day, rock-club-style shows at night. So the obvious question you ask yourself is why would I pay a second time to see a band I could see at a festival that I already paid for? The answer is simple: Everything sounds better in the dark.
The Drive-By Truckers are no exception. Although most of their tour dates this summer were spread out across the eastern US at sun-soaked daytime festivals with names such as SmileFest and Artscape, this band never sounded more at home than in a dark smoky bar. That can’t be said for everyone—seeing The Polyphonic Spree outside, for instance, makes the experience far less creepy.
With already ringing ears from the day’s concerts, I made it over to La Zona Rosa for the second year in a row to see this southern rock quintet. Describing their sound to the uninitiated is similar to trying to tell a really passionate story that actually happened to someone else; it’ll never have the same effect. Just imagine the most charismatic storytellers you’ve ever heard, and then add three guitars, a bass, and a drum kit and you’d have The Drive-By Truckers. Their live show is an all-encompassing assault on the ears. Three different guitars playing three different rhythms all turned up about as loud as they can go. Expect a little permanent hearing damage.
The opening of their set is instantly gratifying as they launch into a sincere and touching version of “The Living Bubba”, a song written about deceased singer/songwriter Gregory Dean Smalley and his courageous dedication to live performance up until his death from AIDS. Patterson sings the lyrics: but I can’t die now cuz I got another show to do with such unflinching sincerity to the ideal that it’s easy to see that this band could play the same set to five fans or 5000.
The show then proceeds at the predictable pace the band is notorious for; a few hard rockers followed by a slower ballad followed by a launch back into the fray. As the night went on, more were moving in sync to the pounding riffs, a testament to the band’s instantly accessible rock sound and the sly southern charm of its three frontmen.
The popularity of alt-country/southern rock tends to be a polarizing issue among rock fans, which serves as an excellent weeding process. Those who know they won’t like it don’t show up with arms folded; those with open minds come and have a good time.
The Truckers’ live show is part of the reason they’ve garnered so much coverage and positive attention. There might not be such a thing as over-exposure as far as publicity goes, but there certainly is when you’re talking about the physical welfare of the band. The Truckers are normally a very concise, in time, on the mark type of outfit that allow themselves to really get chaotic and rowdy during specific times.
This evening was the first time that I saw any cracks in the veneer of this non-stop touring machine. With any long tour comes the inevitable off night. Not so much a bad show but a show that falls slightly below the standards set by the band. The little things that endear this band so much to its rabid fan base were not there. The usual between-song banter of Patterson Hood was sparse. The rock-star posing was minimal and while the band always looks like they’re having a good time on stage, the grind of the road might have taken a little luster off. They seemed like a more efficient, mechanical unit which can most likely be attributed to the sheer number of shows they’ve played this year.
Regardless, their show is still an excellent example of how a great band on an off day can still be better than a good band on its best day. That kind of skill only comes from long, hard days on the road and a dedication to the craft.