This was a homecoming of sorts. A little band from Florence, Alabama called Adam’s House Cat was poised to make it big having won a best-unsigned band contest from Musician magazine, but it never happened. So they broke up in 1991. They grew up, relocated to Athens, Georgia, kept their central guitar/songwriting team in place and, five years later, and became the Drive-By Truckers. The Athens-based Drive-By Truckers have not played their hometown of Florence, Alabama in over five years. They first played the area back in 2001 (Slinky’s in Sheffield) and the following year had their first gigs in Florence. According to the bands official website tonight’s venue, the Shoals Theatre — a recently restored art-deco theatre from the 1930s — held extra significance as it was where Patterson Hood saw all the Disney films as a kid and the kernel of the song “Tornadoes” was formed.
Excited they were.
Patterson Hood strode on stage, waved hello to the crowd, and shook a few hands as the rest of the band — tonight a septet featuring special guest keyboardist and local legend Spooner Oldham — took their places. Then Mike Cooley kicked into “Where the Devil Don’t Stay”, a classic show and album opener if there ever were one.
The outline of the evening was clear by the fourth song. An old school biography lesson about Florence and the deep dirty decorated South — three of the first four songs came from their true masterpiece, 2004’s The Dirty South. Patterson revealed himself as a gifted archetypal Southern fabulist with the second and fourth offerings of the evening: “The Boys from Alabama”, a kind of inverted murder ballad about Buford Pusser told from the bad guys’ perspective, and a paean to his beloved grandfather, “The Sands of Iwo Jima”.
The rest of the main 90-minute set followed this pattern. They played a fair amount of material from the current release, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, but it was clear the crowd came for the older stuff, especially the Decoration Day duo, “Marry Me” and “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy”, which drew the loudest sing along from the crowd. Also given a rowdy response was the set closing “Let There Be Rock”, which Hood prefaced with a long peroration about the “real” CC Chandler who saved his life when he was 16, drunk and drowning in a toilet.
After a short break and some unnecessary crowd baiting by their semi-psycho guitar tech, the band came back and ripped through a 50-minute encore… well almost. Ironically the first two numbers from the latest record — bass player Shonna Tucker’s second effort of the evening “Home Field Advantage” along with “3 Dimes Down” — were blandly uninspiring. Perhaps it was a strategic decision to pace the “second” set. The momentum and mood changed with the historically and geographically appropriate “Runaway Train” by Adam’s House Cat. This was followed by another lengthy peroration by Hood about the difficulty of being a rock band in this area in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, which lead the band into “Buttholeville”. The show roared to a close with three tracks from their breakout disc, Southern Rock Opera: “Ronnie and Neil”, which provided a history lesson about the “duality of the southern thang”; “Zip City”, which was a useful geography lesson for out-of-towners like me; and a noisily tense and moving “Angels and Fuselage” that the band roared through and which included some classic guitar posturing by Hood and Cooley.
The show opened with The Whigs — fellow Athenians and ATO-labelmates — playing a smoky 50-minute set. They opened with “Like a Vibration” and focused on mainly new material from their second record, 2008’s Mission Control. Unfortunately, the band suffers a bit from Modest Mouse-like blandness. They occasionally sound like the avatars of indie rock rather than the thing itself. Certainly their set could have used a bit more sonic variety and less fog machine. The best part of the set was the closing triumvirate that featured the extended tale of “Already Young” — their cleverly winning reworking of some musical figures from Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men” — followed by the full-on assault of “Right Hand on My Heart” and “Need You Need You”. Clearly a band that bears watching as their sound develops and matures further.