Bandleader Patterson Hood likes to call it “The Rock Show.” Yet, while it is a spectacle and most certainly a performance, the Drive-By Truckers don’t really put on a “show.” There’s nothing contrived or premeditated about what they do. The hours they spend on stage are a reflection of who they are. It’s not a show; it’s an invitation into their dirty little world. You never feel like they are putting you on. The DBTs have lived every word and every note of every song. Authenticity can’t be bought, faked or traded. The Drive-By Truckers are the real deal, and they proved it on this night. (3.18.08)
Perhaps not as conducive to rocking as other venues, Pittsburgh’s Mr. Small’s Theatre is essentially just a bar with a stage. Lines are poor and the setting rather sterile, but they’ve got one hell of a sound system. Taking time to warm up the room, the early part of the set featured bassist Shonna Tucker taking lead vocals on “I’m Sorry Houston” and Mike Cooley’s country-flavored “Lisa’s Birthday,” both off the band’s January release, ‘Brighter Than Creation’s Dark.’
With his acoustic guitar strapped over his shoulder, Hood grabbed the mic and smiled as he promised, “Couple more slow ones and then we’ll throw down some rock.” But before the whiskey-soaked ass kickin’ could ensue, Hood told the tale of “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife.” With Cooley on banjo and John Neff’s eerie pedal steel, the song became a haunting lament of death and murder and suicide – a family at the gates of heaven. It’s rare that a creepy, beautiful ballad can evoke such emotion in a loud room full of rock fans, but that’s what puts the Drive-By Truckers over-the-top. They rock hard as hell, but they also carry a story and pump it full of emotion as good as anyone.
Swapping out acoustics for electrics, Hood flashed Cooley a plugged-in smile as they dove into raunchy, guitar-crunching songs about enjoying two women at once (“3 Dimes Down”), living in the nut house (“Dead Drunk and Naked”) and the true story of Atlanta’s underground rock star Gregory Dean Smalley, who died of AIDS. (“The Living Bubba”)
There were moments when ex-Trucker Jason Isbell did come to mind. While his exceptional guitar playing was adequately compensated for by the legendary Spooner Oldham’s keyboard and John Neff’s soaring pedal steel and six-string, Isbell is an incredible songwriter, and his presence is occasionally missed. There’s an interesting dynamic occurring in the Truckers’ world today. With Isbell gone, his ex-wife Shonna Tucker’s role has expanded exponentially. This is her first time writing and singing for the band, and while she brings a welcome shot of estrogen to balance out all this testosterone, filling the gap left by Isbell is no easy task. However, instead of even trying to replace or cover up Isbell’s departure, the Truckers have reverted back to what their core strengths have always been: Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. These two have been trading songs and tearing up bars for more than 22 years, and they certainly don’t need Isbell or anyone else to make this beast roar. Both personally and musically, Isbell was headed in a different direction, which is perfectly evident when listening to the difference between 2006’s angular ‘Blessing and a Curse’ and what some have called a return to form on 2008’s ‘Creation’s Dark.’ The combination of Isbell leaving coupled with Tucker’s songs, Neff’s pedal steel and Oldham’s keyboards have made the Truckers much more of a country rock band that enjoys saturating their amps with that southern “thang.”
Although Isbell did cross the mind, it was just a passing thought, a notion that was quickly dissolved by a mean tandem of songs off the new album. With the tempo pulled way down, Hood pushed the band into dangerous territory with “You And Your Crystal Meth.” Repeating the line, “Ain’t exactly a no drug guy/ Just don’t dig the way that you get high,” one could feel the air grow heavy as tension built under distorted, slow-burning guitars and ghost-like pedal steel. Out from under blood soaked pillows and trailers cookin’ meth, Hood led the congregation down “Goode’s Field Road.” An instant classic for the Truckers’ catalog of crumbling American dreams, the story found Hood on his knees, telling the heartbreaking story of his family’s demise, easily the most emotionally reactive part of the evening.
The show closing run of “Buttholeville,” “State Trooper” and Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died” was cathartic, emotionally exhausting and might be the best encore witnessed all year. There are those in other areas of the vast field of rock & roll that may do things on a higher level, but for what they do, there’s no band better than the Drive-By Truckers.
There’s nothing fancy or new about The Whigs. Still, their just-released second disc, ‘Mission Control,’ fires muscular pop that recalls the halcyon days of Nirvana and the drunken rage of the Replacements. Live, the Athens, Ga., trio kept the roar coming for nearly 45 minutes, breaking only for a couple of piano-based meditations that reached mighty crests. Frontman Parker Gispert has an infectiously distinctive vocal growl, matching perfectly with the sparseness of their drums and bouncy bass lines. Their songs, just like on the albums, were simple. Nostalgic, but original.
An early high point was the explosive “Already Young” with drummer Julian Dorio’s flailing and Gispert tunefully wearing some teenage angst like a medal. “Sleep Sunshine” had a carnival feel with Gispert at the piano and the reverb turned up high. At times, his vocals were swallowed by the cavernous acoustics of the church-turned-club venue, which struggles at times with sound quality and balance. Near the set’s end, “Right Hand on My Heart” featured immense beats from Dorio and bouncing urgency from Gispert that sent the assembled into a frenzy.
The threesome found subtle but effective ways to add textures and dynamics to the standard power trio, three-chord rock. Some of their best-or at least most interesting playing came when they switched the instrumentation to keyboards and guitar, providing one of the rare guitar solos of the night in the fan favorite track, “Half the World Away.” “We’re not used to playing places this big,” the vocalist claimed, but with their dynamic sound and delightful exuberance, it’s something they might just have to grow accustomed to, as they are a band that has a successful future ahead of them.