I see a lot of live music. Not as much as other people, but a pretty sizable amount of live music, and so I see a lot of consummate live bands. Bands who own the room when they get on the stage; watching the crowd howl out the last chorus to “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart” while American Aquarium tears it down is a pretty much unbeatable experience.
But there’s almost no one out there who owns a stage harder and more thoroughly than the Drive-By Truckers when they’re firing on all cylinders. They may very well be the best live band in America right now.
The Truckers aren’t a terrifically well-known band; if you know of them, it’s probably because I spent the summer of 2008 obsessed, focused like a crazy person on this band and its members and its history, and I sort of spewed it all over everyone in my life at the time. (Uh, I’m really retroactively sorry about that. Someone should have told me to shut up.) They’re fronted, most of the time, by Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, both of whom grew up in the Muscle Shoals area of north Alabama; Patterson’s father is bassist David Hood, whose Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section backed hundreds of classic soul records and who were immortalized in Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”. They all come from amazing musical stock and they’ve taken that and created their own identity in fabulous ways.
The Truckers have got a long and sort of tumultuous history, but things have settled down for them in the last few years and right now, they’ve got three killer songwriters working for them and a lineup that hasn’t changed in well over a year. They have their 9th studio album, The Big To-Do, coming out in March, a 10th in the can for the fall, and given what we’re hearing live, I think both of them are going to be out and out smokers. Mike Cooley is one of the most underrated songwriters working today, Shonna Tucker is coming into her own behind the mic, and Patterson Hood is always a heartbreaking commentator on the state of modern America and its residents, especially when he holds himself to fewer than nine songs on an album. (I’ll outline my problems with Brighter Than when I review The Big To-Do, and if someone at ATO wanted to send me an advance of the new album, I’d drool all over it in public.)
And they absolutely destroyed it both nights in Raleigh. “Get Downtown” and “(It’s Gonna Be) I Told You So” rock as hard as anything the Truckers have ever done, “Girls Who Smoke” is the first Cooley/Hood collaboration since “Shut Up And Get On The Plane”, and this tour, not only are they taking the new album out for a spin, but they’re digging out some oldies but great ones, things I never thought I’d get to hear live. The Patterson triple shot of “Sands of Iwo Jima”, “Margo & Harold” and “World of Hurt” on Saturday night was more than I could have ever expected — and then there was still the Southern Rock Opera four song interlude in the middle of Saturday’s set, too, and for a minute there I thought we were going to do the whole damn thing, just out of order.
It’s hard to describe a Truckers show to non-fans and those who’ve never seem them live — Patterson calls it The Rock Show, and that’s as good a description as I’ve heard, Rock Show with capital letters — but they played for nearly three hours both nights, and the energy coming off the stage was unimpeachable and unending. Cooley was in full-on preening Rock Star mode, Shonna danced liked crazy, and Patterson derailed into a long commentary about the role of Alec Baldwin in popular culture in the middle of “Steve McQueen”. Brad Morgan is one of the best drummers in rock and roll. Jay Gonzalez is turning out to be a hilariously excellent keyboard player and back-up singer, and Johnny Neff is killing it in his role of lead guitarist who doesn’t want to sing.
I danced and sang and clutched at Ash for three hours, two nights in a row. I will see a lot more live music this year, but I don’t know if any of those shows will top these two, because they weren’t just good, or great — they were transcendent.
Put it this way: there are people on the Truckers’ fan boards who have seen 30, 40, 50 Truckers shows to my 6, and they were jealous that we got “Margo & Harold”. That’s how unusual and amazing these shows were. (Set lists below.)
it’s great to be alive
Night one: Carl Perkins’ Cadlillac/Santa Fe/One of These Days/Bulldozers & Dirt/Panties In Your Purse/The Righteous Path/Sinkhole/Women Without Whiskey/You & Your Crystal Meth/A Ghost To Most/Girls Who Smoke/Birthday Boy/Home Field Advantage/3 Dimes Down/Wig He Made Her Wear/Drag The Lake Charlie/Gravity’s Gone/The Company I Keep/Get Downtown/(It’s Gonna Be) I Told You So/Working This Job/Where The Devil Don’t Stay/The Flying Wallendas/Lookout Mountain
encore: You Got Another/Strutter/Let There Be Rock/Shut Up And Get On The Plane/Play It All Night Long/People Who Died
Night two: Fourth Night of My Drinking/Marry Me/Since Daddy Learned To Fly/Zip City/The Sands of Iwo Jima/I’m Sorry Huston/Panties In Your Purse/Margo & Harold/Birthday Boy/Girls Who Smoke/Gravity’s Gone/Dead Drunk & Naked/Guitar Man Upstairs/Plastic Flowers On The Highway/Road Cases/3 Dimes Down/Steve McQueen/Where The Devil Don’t Stay/Working This Job/Get Downtown/(It’s Gonna Be) I Told You So/Hell No I Ain’t Happy/Shut Up And Get On The Plane
encore: The Flying Wallendas/World of Hurt/One of These Days/Putting People On The Moon/Lookout Mountain/Keep On Rocking In The Free World