Loathe as I was to admit it to myself, I was starting to get a little bored with the Drive-By Truckers.
Then last Saturday's show happened.
Does it represent a slightly new direction for the band I love?
Or was it just a drunken hook-up that will never call, never buy me brunch, never even throw me a pity bang?
A lengthy dissection of this and some kick-ass tunes after the jump.
Hell No, I Ain't Happy
Rockin' in the Free World from 11/8 Philly show.
We all have regrets in life. The path not taken, etc. This one ranks just below missing an impromptu stand-up set at a PADA holiday party back in 2005. To this day, I don't know the difference between how white people and black people drive.
My regret is that I didn't trust my fellow Marah fanatics when they kept pimping this band called the Drive-By Truckers to me for over a year. It wasn't that I didn't trust their opinion, it was just never the right time or place. But those are just excuses for a lack of initiative on my part. When it was finally the right place & time (TLA, June 21, 2003), I had missed the chance to see them in the really small venues (they played the Bishop's Collar twice for crying out loud).
But despite not knowing any of their songs going in to that show, I knew I was going to be hooked. They beat the shit out of you with 3 guitars, and then throw you in the back of a pick-up truck and take you on a tour of seedy backwater counties resplendent in all shades of gray. Metaphorically, that is. Mostly.
And to say they had an embarrassment of riches in terms of talent would be an understatement. All 3 leads (Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, Jason Isbell) could easily front their own band. And they were unabashedly Southern, embracing all the baggage and pride that it entailed.
In short, there was nothing for me not to adore. Ever since then, I've jumped at the chance to see them whenever they came to town, or any towns within a 2 hour radius. Or when the opportunity struck, any town within a 2 hour flight. New Year's Eve day 2003, with no big plans for the evening, I jumped a plane to see them at the Variety Playhouse in the ATL. I took 2 more Georgia-bound flights over the next year+. The destination for both of those trips was the lovely little college town of Athens, GA. Home to my favorite college football team and more great little dive bars than one could count on 3 hands. I fell in love with the town and put my soul further in hock to the band.
Down in a Hole
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit -- "Decoration Day"
Even though it was clearly Patterson & Cooley's band, you could tell early on that Jason Isbell was special. He could do the rockers and he could do the heartbreaking epics. And he was the only one who brought a smoothness in his vocals and songwriting to the table. He wasn't as prolific as the other two when you look at the DBT catalog, but there wasn't a clunker in the bunch. "Danko/Manuel", "Outfit", "Goddamn Lonely Love", "Never Gonna Change", "The Day John Henry Died" I could go on.
And the blend of the 3 songwriters was perfect during their live shows. Every single DBT set started with (in differing order) one song from each of the 3 leads. I loved the democracy it exemplified. And the rest of the setlist always seemed perfectly balanced between the three of them..
Then he left the band.
It was never a question of "if", but "when" he would go solo. His songwriting and chops were too good. But it all happened too fast (for me, anyways) in April 2007. It didn't help that he was divorcing the woman who was both his wife AND bass player (Shonna Tucker).
But like they say in Frisco, the band played on.
Burning for You in Louisville:
Since then, the live shows have been off-balance. It didn't matter how good the band or how hot the crowd was. It's not like the rest of the band started sucking all of a sudden, but there was always an Isbell-sized hole in the shows.
Most bands could not have weathered a loss like that and continued to be a viable act. Most bands are not the Drive-By Truckers. But it also seems like they've been trying to find a new tack since then.
To their credit, they did not try to replace him with another guitarist/songwriter wunderkind. Not that there a lot of those hanging around the Waffle House, but it's a route they could have tried to take. It worked for INXS, right?
In the immediate aftermath, they launched a mostly acoustic tour (The Dirt Underneath) and drafted legendary Muscle Shoals musician Spooner Oldham to help fill in. But as they went back to doing more rock shows, they leaned more on pedal steel guitarist John Neff who had been with them early on and then rejoined them in 2006. But the pedal steel sound is going to swallowed mostly whole by the guitars of Cooley & Patterson. Shonna would do 1 or 2 of her Dusty Springfield-ish tunes, which was fine, but nothing to get psyched about.
The nadir might have been a show down in Baltimore at Pier 6 this past summer. A good chunk of the crowd left after the The Avett Brothers "opened", and the show could be best described as "workmanlike". To be fair, when you play 300 shows a year, that'll happen. And it doesn't help that the last 2 albums were overall quieter and smaller in tone than the bombastic brilliance of The Dirty South or Decoration Day.
Something, however, was missing.
Maybe they found that missing ingredient in a NJ Turnpike rest stop on the way down to Philly Saturday afternoon. It wasn't evident Friday night in NYC, but to be fair, that felt like a Hold Steady show with a Hold Steady crowd.
Saturday night at the Electric Factory was a revelation.
Something lit a fire under their ass and they took it to another level, a level I hadn't seen them at since early 07. They extended several songs ("Heathens", "Hell No, I Ain't Happy") with some atypical jams. They do love a guitar solo (or threesome), but it's usually done within the confines of the song structure. It was nice to see them explore the studio space. It's interesting that their fan base has a decent-sized overlap with the "jam" community, but I never thought they fell into that category. They've never noodled.
Maybe it was as something simple as it being Saturday night before a hot crowd, or maybe the ever-present bottle of Jack they passed around was aged in a particularly good barrel.
Maybe it was the unlikely addition of a horn section for several songs. At first glance, you would say that the Truckers and a horn section go together like Craig Finn and tight, on-stage choreography. But against those odds, it worked. The horns lent a funereal quality to the otherwise uplifting "World of Hurt". 180 degrees the opposite direction, they helped cut the brakes on they always-fiery "Marry Me". On a side note, we here at the Popcorn Trick are working on a behind-the-scenes look at the particulars of how the horn section came to be. Stay tuned.
Or maybe it was the natural competition and inspiration that touring with a band like The Hold Steady can bring. I don't see how it couldn't bring out new aspects of your live show. Especially when the 2 bands intermingle for the encores every single night of the tour to do each band's signature closer (THS' "Killer Parties" and DBT's "Let There Be Rock") and a wide array of covers (e.g. "Rockin' in the Free World", "Look Out Cleveland", "Burnin' For You").
Most likely, it's some combination of all those factors. The simple fact is that without Isbell, they can't just hit you with a Neapolitan ice cream barrage of classics for 3 hours. But they're a very tight unit. What they can do is play the shit out of a still-impressively deep catalog of songs. I would love to see them rework a few of the war horses and forgotten chestnuts. Most importantly, take the vibe from those encores and extend it through the whole set. Make us feel like we might see something we've never seen before, even those of us who've seen 'em dozens of times.
Hell, if Patterson can change the lyrics of "Steve McQueen", anything can change, right?
"I really loved The Getaway back when I was eight... That pussy Alec Baldwin sucked in the remake..."
"I really loved The Getaway back when I was eight... I really thought Alec Baldwin was a pussy back when he made that remake... That was before 30 Rock... I kinda like him now..."
So it doesn't flow quite as well, but it definitely shows the Universe more respect. Either way, the next couple of lines still kill me:
"Speaking of pussy, they say Steve McQueen got it all... He fucked Faye Dunaway... And he fucked Ali McGraw..."
Some auditory evidence of the genius that transpired that night:
And some Hold Steady-centric stuff too: