By: David Schultz
It doesn’t seem that long ago that the Drive-By Truckers were a little known but widely revered band that was making a name for themselves by reviving Southern rock, perpetuating the Lynyrd Skynyrd mythos and making no bones about their reverence for their home state of Alabama. Southern Rock Opera made them stars and after bringing Jason Isbell into the fold, their next two albums proved it wasn’t a fluke. The bloom is off the rose though and after the disappointing A Blessing And A Curse, the Truckers are trying to recapture their magic by returning to the honest, whiskey-soaked anthems that marked their early days.
Bringing along their customary Costco-sized bottles of Jack Daniels, Drive-By Truckers returned to New York City last week to play Terminal 5, one of the City’s newer venues. The last time DBT came to Manhattan, they sat on stools at the Bowery Ballroom for an acoustic show; this time around, Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, Shonna Tucker, John Neff, Brad Morgan and guest legend Spooner Oldham plugged in and stayed on their feet (well not Morgan and Oldham). Cooley and Hood combine to present a true dichotomy of the South. Over the night, the two traded the leads back and forth, literally and thematically. In his higher toned, almost pleading voice, Hood speaks from the heart of the South, giving voice to the deepest desires, fears and concerns of the region’s oft-forgotten rural denizens. In contrast, Cooley speaks in the authoritative tones of the Deep South, steeped in its rituals and traditions. Hood sings with an eye towards what should be; Cooley tells it like it is.
The Truckers are in the second year of their post-Isbell period. Isbell was with the band for only two albums, but those albums, Decoration Day and The Dirty South, are among the band’s best. John Neff has stepped into Isbell’s shoes, handling the third guitarist role with ample skill although without a lot of Isbell’s charisma. While Hood and Cooley confidently prowled the stage, Neff reservedly played off to stage right in front of Oldham’s keyboard setup.
Hood has evolved into a masterful story teller. In introducing “18 Wheels Of Love,” Hood told a moving tale involving the subjects of the song, his mother and stepfather. With Tucker and Morgan playing the basic beat of the song, Hood delivered the lengthy story of his stepfather’s battle with cancer, drawing the crowd into his world in much the same way as Bruce Springsteen used to do. Hood’s story ended on an emotionally uplifting note and it gave extra relish to the already boozy tune.
To close the show, Parker Gispert from The Whigs borrowed Hood’s guitar and joined in on a thrashy version of Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died,” putting a Southern spin on a decidedly New York punk rocker. The Whigs, another band hailing from below the Mason-Dixon Line, opened the show with a high-powered, half-hour set featuring some of the best tracks from Mission Control. The Whigs have been making the most of their recent opportunities: at SXSW, they opened for My Morning Jacket at an NPR simulcasted showcase at the Austin Music Hall and over the past couple weeks have been raising eyebrows while the open for the Truckers. Gispert and bassist Tim Deaux have a knack for knowing the right moment to burst away from the mikes and Julian Dorio’s drumming is crisp and precise. In the post-Nirvana 90s, The Whigs would have a powerful force and “Right Hand On My Heart” would have been all over MTV.
DBY geared the show around Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. Thankfully, they didn’t play the entire album; the Trucker’s latest would definitely have benefited from some shrewd editing as the sheer volume of the 19 song output dilutes the album’s overall impact. The new songs take an added depth in the live setting, even Tucker’s laconic “I’m Sorry Houston.” Cooley and Hood’s guitars become much more vivid and whiskey fueled. They also benefit from placement next to other Truckers material like “Where The Devil Don’t Stay” and their smoldering rendition of “Puttin' People On The Moon.”
In seeing the Truckers at Terminal 5, they felt like a band that was rediscovering themselves, trying to recall what made them great without rehashing old material and becoming stale. Some of those attempts misfired, their nearly unrecognizably cover of Tom Petty’s “Rebels” being a fine example. Most of them though, seemed to get Hood and Cooley digging deep and unleashing their inner rock star. It was during these moments that you realized that like the South, Drive-By Truckers will rise again.