First rule of criticism: don’t resort to histrionics, whatever you do. Give in to platitudes or subject your readers to droning, interminable recaps, but don’t start fawning. That’s the very antithesis of criticism, right? It represents the apex of subjectivity, and consequently has no place in a form dedicated to the pursuit of objectivity, however unattainable it might ultimately be.
But what do you do when only histrionics will suffice? How do you approach the subject then? Do you indulge the impulse to zealotry, or do you fight it like death itself?
After much deliberation, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s best in times like these to take a deep breath (or two, or three) and say ‘fuck it.’
A couple of weeks ago, my answer would have been different. But seeing probably the greatest rock show of your life will change your mind about a lot of things, the least consequential of which are the finer points of the methodology of pop criticism.
The Drive-By Truckers took the cramped stage of the Bluebird Nightclub casually, as if they were about to do something quite routine, if not exactly run of the mill. No fanfare, no theatrics, no flashy clothes. Patterson Hood approached the mic and made some brief opening remarks, then played the first chords of a new cut called “Grand Canyon,” dedicated to fallen DBT compatriot Craig Lieske. Speaking in strictly musical terms, it was a complete triumph — elegiac, insistent and righteous — and it certainly bodes well for the quality of the group’s forthcoming LP, due early next year.
What followed that auspicious opener defies description. It was a performance without a peak. Every number seemed poised to be the show’s defining moment, and each subsequent number proved that assumption dead wrong. Much as I would have doubted so beforehand, it turns out it can get better than “Tales Facing Up”, and not just once but seven or eight times. How, you ask? Try tacking the first two lines of “Small Town” to the beginning of “Buttholeville,” then slap on a stomping, psychotic outro that promises to topple the venue’s solid wood buttresses. That will just about do it.
That’s only one example, of course, and you could say much the same thing about any of the night’s performances (swapping out adjectives when appropriate, playing critical Mad Libs). “Zip City” or “Marry Me”, “Ronnie and Neil” or “Let There Be Rock”, which included a small sermonette and shout-out to all of us “smiling motherfuckers” in attendance whose lives had been changed for the better because of rock ‘n’ roll — each topped its studio counterpart by leaps and bounds (no mean feat — the band’s records are nearly all masterworks). The cumulative effect was raucous and indignant, fun and funny, profound and poignant and louder than the hounds of hell.
What more is there to say? The band’s body of work is irreproachable and the live performances are peerless. Critical admirers call DBT one of America’s best contemporary bands, and while that’s certainly true, it’s faint praise and bullshit nonetheless. At this point, the pantheon awaits them.