“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun.
It might be cliché to start a piece of writing about the Drive-By Truckers with a moment from the American South’s favorite novelist. Yes, DBT is certainly a band obsessed with the past – both literal and imagined – yet they are not stuck within it. Although they draw on tropes associated with “southern rock” (whatever that is), with three guitars and blues-driven extended solos, they are hardly a stockpile of hackneyed images of Confederate flags and “You might be a redneck if…” jokes. Certainly, they are interested in the concept of place: songs such as “Goode’s Field Road” and “Putting People on the Moon” are deeply rooted in specific geography, with complex tales of economic and social struggle. But all in all, the Drive-By Truckers are most interested in offering narratives from the folks who often don’t get to tell their side of the story – such as the recently laid-off protagonist in “Used to Be a Cop” or a surprisingly wise stripper in “Birthday Boy.”
But on top of all that, it’s a rock show, and perhaps a rock show about rock shows, with glory and sweat and release, somewhere between tent revival, exorcism, and three-ring circus. Maybe old Percy Shelley was right indeed: our sweetest songs are often our saddest thoughts.
I’ve been lucky to catch DBT over 20 times. This past weekend’s run of shows at Buster’s here in Lexington showcased a band firing on all cylinders, and rarely have I seen such an enthusiastic crowd, cheering the band to round the bases and slide headfirst into home plate with both grace and abandon. As folks who have been on the DBT ride for a few years now know, the Truckers have been through almost as many lineup changes as they have total albums. While some might still lament not hearing Jason Isbell-era anthems such as “Outfit” or “Dress Blues” (great songs, from a great songwriter with a new solo record due in a few weeks), the newest lineup of the band might be the best in terms of range. The rhythm section of Shonna Tucker and Brad Morgan can turn on a dime; the recent addition of keys wizard Jay Gonzalez adds a layer that connotes classic soul players such as Booker T or Spooner Oldham. John Neff, on pedal steel and guitar, can nail both a Stone-sy groove and that “boom-chicka” riff that made Johnny Cash a star. And, of course, there’s Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley: the professor and the court jester, the reedy tenor and the chest-thrum baritone, the two mainstays of the group who might go down in history as the Jagger/Richards of the American South.
Finish the review/photos after the break
Over the course of both nights, the Truckers easily weaved in their new material from Go Go Boots – their homage to the soul music they grew up with as kids from the musically rich region of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. On Friday, they pulled out “Ray’s Automatic Weapon” (I’ve always loved it when they open with a slow, drone-based song), “Pulaski,” “Dancing Ricky,” “Cartoon Gold,” and “After the Scene Dies.” For Saturday, they chose “I Do Believe” (which reminds me of classic power-pop as much as it does anything akin to Skynyrd), “Mercy Buckets,” “Used to Be a Cop,” and their cover of Eddie Hinton’s “Everybody Needs Love.” It might be worth noting here that DBT doesn’t use a pre-arranged setlist – everything runs on feel and audibles – and that they rarely repeat songs over the course of two nights; out of over 45 songs in the run, only 7 were repeats, along with a fantastic cover of Warren Zevon’s “Play It All Night Long.” Folks, that’s some serious work.
One thing about a Truckers show that’s true: fans love the words — every single one of them. As the band kicked in favorites such as “Zip City,” “Women Without Whiskey,” and “Tails Facing Up” (which was dedicated on Friday to fellow Alabama native and fantastic opening act Dylan LeBlanc), it’s clear that the long-term committed as well as the recently converted recognize Cooley, Hood, and Tucker’s shared ability as lyricists to turn a phrase, to transform a passing thought to a strong hook, and to make the individual story something close to universal archetype. Maybe, in the end, we’re all the person reminiscing about shows in “Let There Be Rock,” or recalling a long-gone relative in “Box of Spiders,” or both laughing and sighing at the dumb things we’ve done on “The Fourth Night of My Drinking.”
As a long time reader of YANP, I’m thrilled when Matt showcases a band or solo artist committed to moving forward and exploring new territory, to pressing the “Year Zero” button and challenging the boundaries of what I might think of as rock music. But I also love it when a band can draw on a wide range of signifiers and touchstones and yet transcend them, making something that’s full and rich and with a potentially long shelf-life. The Truckers are not interested in simply re-creating a past that might deserve to be dead. Rather, they re-imagine a past via stories and images and a mix of full-throttle rock and deep soul. And for two nights, at the cusp of summer in Lexington, KY, we got to tap into a single moment of their long, developing story as a band.