These days, the Drive-By Truckers are nearly revolutionary in their refusal to treat their music as ironic, as some kind of joyless, angsty joke. No, the Truckers live for this stuff.
“We’ve been to Toronto, I’m going to estimate, seven, maybe eight times. And we have yet to come to Toronto and not have an absolutely perfect time. Not once. Not even a good time. It‘s always been better than that... And, I think, tonight is my favorite night of all the nights we’ve been to Toronto, and that’s saying a mo-ther-fuck-ing lot.” Thus did Patterson Hood, all sweat-stained shirt and gnarly beard and Jack Daniels from the bottle, bless the packed room, ushering in a 45-minute encore set of good old rock ’n’ roll to close a two-and-a-half-hour performance.
The Drive-By Truckers are the most exciting touring act in rock ’n’ roll today. Sometimes, they seem like the only exciting touring act in rock ’n’ roll today. And by rock ’n’ roll, I mean rock ’n’ roll – not “indie rock”, not “garage rock”, not “alt-country”, or any of those other micro-genres. We’re talking sweaty and unapologetic. It seems to me that, these days, the DBTs, along with the Hold Steady and far too few other bands, are nearly revolutionary in their refusals to treat their music as ironic, as some kind of joyless, angsty joke. No, the Truckers live for this stuff: they jam and cough and spit while performing; they jump up on amps to play Chuck Berry solos; and they give the people what they want without a whisper of resentment or fatigue.
And boy, are they fun to watch. Mike Cooley (the DBTs’ best songwriter and the calm to Hood’s chaotic storm), cuts a cool Keith Richards, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and a bottle of Jack perched on his amp. Between them, bassist Shonna Tucker bops around like some kinetic robot, all sparking electricity and mighty fingers. And, gross as it is, it is somehow totally awesome that Patterson Hood spits on the stage before he sings: every time. Their sets are long, their set lists varied and dynamic, and their stage presence deeply charismatic. They’ve released eight records in ten years, five of them instant classics, boasting an astounding 104 songs altogether. They screech and yelp and play their guitars like their fingers are on fire. When they miss a note, a cue, whatever, they play on. They let bootleggers tape. They just don’t give a fuck.
Opening with “The Living Bubba”, a fan favorite written for a friend and fellow musician who died of AIDS (“But I can’t die now, ’cause I got another show to do” is the haunting refrain), the Truckers built it up slowly. Indeed, the first half-hour was a succession of mid-tempo numbers, all played well, but with less vigor than the crowd was here to experience. There was fidgeting...and then there was “Sink Hole”, the blistering number from 2003’s excellent Decoration Day, with its searing climax about a farmer fantasizing the murder of a banker who has come to take his land (“Damned if I wouldn’t go to church on Sunday and look the preacher in the eye,” concludes the protagonist). From here, the energy in the room entered a compelling rise-and-fall cycle, from quiet ballads (“Checkout Time in Vegas”) to tense slow-burners (“Goode's Field Road”), to headbanging rave-ups (“Hell No, I Ain’t Happy”). By the time they got to “Women Without Whisky”, one of Mike Cooley’s masterpieces from the Truckers’ breakout Southern Rock Opera, the show was in full swing. From here, the final 80 minutes were unrelenting.
While it may have been Hood’s favorite night in Toronto, it wasn’t quite their best show in Hogtown. Last time they came round, while still boasting an excellent third songwriter, guitarist, and singer in Jason Isbell (he split after touring their last record), they played a show so blistering, so bursting with energy, and so unforgettably vivid that many in the audience were talking about the best concert they’d ever seen as they wandered into the night. This time, people on their way out were mostly talking about how great the second half of the show was after a disappointing first hour.
Losing Isbell has hurt them, it must be said. The decision to let Shonna Tucker sing has helped a bit -- “I’m Sorry Huston”, the one tune she offered at this show, was a melodic high point -- but not nearly enough to make up for the loss of the man behind such crowd favorites as “Outfit”, “Danko/Manuel”, “Goddamn Lonely Love”, and “Decoration Day”. Moreover, Isbell was the most dynamic guitarist onstage at most DBT shows; the fact that he’s been “replaced” by John Neff, a multi-instrumentalist who looks more like an accountant than a rock star, does not help. My friend complained that Neff’s area of the stage was like some black, sucking void: empty of soul, sex, violence, anything of interest. Even when he played wailing guitar solos, the guy looked like he was signing legal papers.
But Cooley, Tucker, Hood, and the expressionless but solid (and Amishly over-bearded) Brad Morgan on drums are the very spirit of the music. As the show came to its glorious, messy end -- following an excellent encore run of “Zip City”, “18 Wheels of Love”, “Shut Up and Get on the Plane”, and “Let There Be Rock” -- Hood gave his guitar away to a roadie and ran about the stage like a drunk, yelping about never going back to “Buttholeville” before slipping into “State Trooper”, a brilliant cover of Bruce Springsteen’s dark little short story. Screaming, strutting, spitting, shouting, and sweating. Playing their asses off, and passing around the whisky bottle. And the audience smiling, hooting, and cheering them on. Look how much goddamn fun they’re having!
Jesus, remember when rock bands looked like they were having fun up there?