Drive-By Truckers frontman Patterson Hood has already gone on record saying that Live from Austin TX is “absolutely the best filmed performance our band has ever had”. True enough, the stellar mix and pristine visual and audio quality found on the DVD will come as a revelation for fans who are accustomed to soundboard recordings and raw mixes of the band’s live shows. But one also gets the impression that Hood might be choosing his words carefully to emphasize the superiority of this release over 2005’s Dirty South — Live at the 40 Watt — there’s a world of difference between “best performance” and “best filmed performance”, a world that someone with Hood’s linguistic talents is undoubtedly aware.
Sure, it’s a totally minor distinction — but an important one nonetheless. Because while there is no argument against the surface quality of the videography and the performance, anyone who has seen the band live under normal circumstances will agree that Live from Austin TX is not the most definitive record of what goes down at a Drive-By Truckers show. This isn’t intended as a criticism of the band, but rather an imperative to keep the context in mind; knowing that this was recorded in a situation far more formal than the rock clubs to which they’re accustomed could help ease the disappointment some might feel over the considerably safer version of the Drive-By Truckers documented here.
The CD/DVD package presents the band’s full set from a September 2008 concert taped for the venerable PBS series, Austin City Limits, a show whose aesthetic principles tend to elicit subdued performances by definition. The band takes advantage of the setting to begin the show with a couple of acoustic numbers, “Perfect Timing” and “Heathens” — songs played not so frequently on regular tour stops. It’s a slightly deceptive introduction, however — by the third song (guitarist Mike Cooley’s excellent “A Ghost to Most”), Hood trades the acoustic for his gold-top Les Paul and — with the exception of “Space City” later in the set — lets it rip from there on out.
One of the advantages of the DVD’s mix is to hear what each band member brings to the arrangements a little more clearly than usual. Cooley, although his guitar gets a bit buried in the mix, spins off his customary share of mind-bogglingly tasteful solos; similarly, John Neff gets in his share of hot solo time as well, not to mention making the pedal steel guitar look as easy to play as the triangle. Shonna Tucker’s bass literally thumps out of her Ampeg SVT rig, always locking in perfectly with drummer Brad Morgan’s understated solidity. And keyboardist Jay Gonzalez may actually benefit the most from the recording quality — where his contributions are often lost in the mix of a DBT club show, it’s a pleasant surprise when the DVD reveals how much his organ adds to songs like the live staple, “Puttin’ People on the Moon”.
But while the Drive-By Truckers are a democratic ensemble at heart, Patterson Hood is still undeniably the band’s focal point — a status also reinforced by this performance. He brings his characteristic passion to the fore, whether confessing his thrill at achieving his dream of performing on Austin City Limits or introducing songs like “The Living Bubba” (an introduction sadly edited out of the CD version, presumably for space considerations) with detailed stories about the people who inspired them. Nowhere is this clearer than in “18 Wheels of Love”, a song Hood wrote as a wedding gift for his mother when she remarried. In what is reportedly the last-ever live performance of the song, Hood’s extended introduction displays humble eloquence and the timing of a genius storyteller — making the sentiment of the actual song ring that much truer in what is a definite highlight of both the CD and DVD.
And by the time the band closes out with two of its best and most-loved songs, “Let There Be Rock” and “Marry Me”, there’s a sense that maybe this whole business about the subdued context and ACL formality isn’t so important after all. Maybe it’s more interesting to see a great band adapt to its surroundings and still make it a rousing success — even if they do have to resort to using a set list just this once. So while it might lack the spontaneous energy and marathon length — and consumption of Jack Daniels straight from the bottle — of a “normal” DBT live show, Live from Austin TX is still an excellent document of a great rock ‘n’ roll band doing what it does best.