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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Dirt and Grit: Drive-By Truckers At The Bowery Ballroom 

By: David Schultz

The South claims a mythic hold on the hearts and minds of the Drive-By Truckers. In their worldview, the legends of Southern heroes like Buford Pusser, Carl Perkins and John Henry are just as timeless as those of Achilles and Odysseus and it’s always been their mission to do for Alabama what Homer did for Ancient Greece. Guitarists and songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have always been at the center of this Southern preservation society with their 2001 opus, Southern Rock Opera, adding to, if not entirely deifying, the mystique of Lynyrd Skynyrd, one of rock’s better known proponents of “The Heart of Dixie.”

On their current The Dirt Underneath tour, the Truckers (who also ranked #3 in Earvolution's Best of 2004) have been playing with purpose, working out some new songs that will be on their upcoming Brighter Than Creation’s Dark and rediscovering some old ones in a predominantly acoustic setting. An intimately styled show needs an intimate setting and in New York City that generally means a night at the Bowery Ballroom. Though acoustic, it wasn’t entirely unplugged nor was it a relaxed Storyteller performance. Seated for most of the night, the Truckers didn’t get the same power as they do from their electric performances but in relying on their voices and stories instead of their guitars, they delivered the same emotional punch.

With Jason Isbell leaving the band to pursue a solo career, the Truckers three headed guitar/lead vocalist monster has been pared down to Hood and Cooley. Isbell’s split from the band is hardly insignificant. However, his absence hasn’t deprived the Truckers of their swampy grittiness or outlaw charm. Bassist Shonna Tucker, Isbell’s ex-wife, remains as does longtime drummer Brad Morgan. For the Friday night show, newcomer John Neff moved between pedal steel and an acoustic guitar and famed session musician Spooner Oldham was stationed modestly at the rear of the stage.

In opening with “The Home Front” and “A Ghost To Most,” the Truckers offered a glimpse of the new before lustily reviving many older tunes, being more prone to dipping into their first two albums, Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverance, then their latest A Blessing And A Curse. A large man, Hood sings with a slightly breathy, at time straining voice. It gives his songs a small tinge of despair and an empathetic feel as in “The Sands Of Iwo Jima,” a song Hood wrote for and dedicated to his great-uncle who fought on the island during World War II and gave the songs it’s memorable phrase, “I never saw John Wayne on the sands of Iwo Jima.” Hood’s compassion compliments the stentorian growl Cooley uses while offering dry commentary on his surroundings as on “Daddy’s Cup” where he eloquently describes the lessons passed down from father to son. Modifying some of the arrangements, “Putting People On The Moon” amassed a poignancy as opposed to “Sink Hole,” which without the swampy guitars came off emasculated. For Southern Rock Opera’s “Let There Be Rock,” Hood used the anthem a framework, interjecting soliloquies about going to “C-level” concerts in Huntsville, Alabama rather than offering a straight-up recitation.

Effective as Hood and Cooley were, the Truckers took on different dimensions when the lead vocals passed out of their hands. For the first time since joining the Truckers, Tucker sang lead on the pleasing “I’m Sorry Houston” and in a wizened gravelly voice, Oldham revived his oft-covered 1966 classic “I’m Your Puppet.” However, it was a guest turn by Bettye Lavette that put everyone to shame. The soul legend worked with Hood and the Truckers on her latest album, The Scene Of The Crime and she emerged from backstage for a wickedly soulful turn through “I Still Want To Be Your Baby (Take Me As I Am).”

Other than when playing bartender and pouring whiskey from enormous Costco-sized bottles of Jack Daniels down everyone’s throat while they were otherwise occupied with such trivialities like playing guitar, Hood waited until the end of the encore to rise from his chair. Channeling his inner Springsteen, Hood came to his knees for “State Trooper” which they worked into “Buttholeville,” one of their oldest songs and by the time they lurched into their cover of punk-poet Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died,” Hood abandoned all pretenses and attacked the song with a furious vengeance.

You might imagine that a night of acoustic music with the Drive-By Truckers wouldn’t incite a crowd. You would be wrong. Once the Truckers finished, Tucker started pointing to a commotion at the front of the stage and with her and a slightly confused Hood looking on with interest, security (efficiently) wrestled at least one person from the front of the stage to the street in a matter of seconds. Just imagine the scene if they had plugged in.

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