12 Steps With the Drive-By Truckers
Twelve, that’s the number of times that I’ve seen the Drive-By Truckers in the last seven years, including three rock shows in 2011. What’s to explain an old guy’s devotion to a hard-touring guitar band with a catalogue of hard-time rock songs? Here’s twelve reasons:
1) On 2004‘sThe Dirty South, the band’s founding singer-guitarists Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley tangled with a talented young gun named Jason Isbell. At Irving Plaza in NYC, when all three swung their guitar necks in corny choreography, the two young dudes in front of me exchanged an exultant high five. This 52-year-old rock fan smiled in agreement, seeing an image from his past. The Truckers would have been huge in 1974. Today, they’re a healthy cult’s favorite band.
2) The Truckers were back in NYC a few months later, playing at the Bowery Ballroom after Patti Smith’s annual New Year’s Eve show. Sanity prevailed, and we stayed home to cook an elegant dinner. Still, I dutifully checked the Internet Archive, a web site that collects concert tapes recorded by folks whose idea of fun is minding a microphone. The Truckers rocked.
3) 2006‘s A Blessing and a Curse wasn’t a bust, but it was also nowhere near as good as The Dirty South, and when we went to see the Truckers at Webster Hall (my wife’s first show), you could sense tension in the band. A new rockumentary about the Truckers, The Secret to a Happy Ending, points to friction in the marriage of Isbell and bassist Shonna Tucker. That night, the tension was not relieved by the Jack Daniels passed between the band
4) We were at the lip of the stage for “The Dirt Underneath” at the Bowery Ballroom. This “unplugged” tour was a fiscal stop-gap designed to give the band a chance to redefine themselves after the departure of Isbell. A now divorced Shonna stayed with the band, and original member John Neff was back on guitar and pedal steel (the two now share a house). The bourbon was back too, and the personably woozy show left me feeling like a parent worrying about his talented kids.
5) We caught a free show at Castle Clinton in the summer of 2007, captured by a clip on YouTube (we’re the bald guy and the blonde towards the front). Pianist Spooner Oldham, who guested on the band’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, was on the gig. Oldham played with Patterson’s father David Hood on many classic soul hits recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. In 2010, in Tarrytown, New York, David joined Patterson onstage to play bass on “Respect Yourself,” the Staple Singers tune that the father had played on back in the day. In recent years, the soul side of the Truckers has been displayed on album in which they backed Bettye LaVette and Booker T.
6) I’ve bought tickets for all my Trucker concerts, save the free one and a pass into the band’s appearance at a Levon Helm Ramble in my hometown of Woodstock, New York. This comes after many years of enjoying free press tickets. The musician in me likes buying tickets for the Truckers, recognizing that it’s how they make a living, and that I was now more a fan than a critic. Significantly, they price their general-admission tickets in the $30 range, and their up-close-and-personal rock show is a world away from being in a stadium with Bruce Springsteen or U2.
7) Truth be told, as cool as it was to see Spooner Oldham playing with the Truckers, he could barely be heard in the mix. Jay Gonzales has been playing keyboards with the group for the past few years and is the best rock-band keyboardist this side of Benmont Tench of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. Like a hard-rock Garth Hudson, he finds the space between the crunch of guitars, and fills it with wit and style.
8) Wes Freed is a hipster artist who does folk art-ish covers and booklet illustrations for the Trucker albums. Think of the Neon Park paintings that gave stylistic heft to the albums of Little Feat. Freed also produces artful scrims for their stage set, and posters for their tours and individual dates. All told, the integrity of art and music creates a well-rounded package. For samples, check out Freed’s Facebook page.
9) Shonna Tucker and Brad Morgan are a rock-steady rhythm section, and while Shonna’s lead vocals and original songs aren’t yet as strong as those of Patterson and Cooley, her feminine presence is a vital asset. Loud sweaty guitar rock is boy’s music, and Shonna’s presence adds sweet soul to a rock band whose hard-edged songs offer succor in a world of hurt.
10) Three Dimes Down is a fan web site where Trucker fans gather to shoot the breeze between rock shows. Set lists and reviews of each show are dutifully posted– the Truckers take perverse pride in choosing the night’s repertoire on the fly– and plans are made for pilgrimages to the band’s annual run at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, Georgia, or for tail-gate parties before specific shows. The sense of community fosters a familial feeling between the band and its fans such that watching the Truckers take the stage feels like reconnecting with old friends.
11) Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have spent most of their adult lives playing together in rock bands, including the past fifteen years at the helm of the Truckers. But theirs is no Mick and Keith kind of partnership. More like two Keiths, with Cooley prone to writing fast rock shuffles and Hood favoring hard-rock rumbles etched out of riffs from his Gibson SG. Where Cooley is flinty and cool, Patterson is gregarious, and wears his heart on his sleeve. Two sides that defines a singular partnership.
12) The gang at Three Dimes Down would no doubt disagree, but the Truckers’ last two albums, The Big To-Do and Go-Go Boots, constitutes their best work, especially in regards to the instrumental interaction between the musicians. Frankly, when Isbell was in the band, his guitar heroics overshadowed those of his colleagues. And while Neff wails on pedal steel and lead guitar, the three guitarists have lately achieved a uniquely organic balance. That six-string (times three) power was certainly in evidence on June 11, 2011, at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, New Jersey, and it was not just the best concert I’ve seen the Truckers perform, but a Top 10 show from a rock life that stretches back to the Fillmore East.
13) Okay, I’m cheating, but that’s because I just bought a ticket for the just-announced Brooklyn Bowl show on June 20. This is admittedly crazy behavior for a 59-year-old man, but it’s too late to stop now. On “A World of Hurt,” which darn near brought me to tears at the Wellmont, Patterson offered a benediction that I’ll use in my defense: “It’s great to be alive.” See you at the rock show.
This was originally posted at ‘Down on the Corner’ at http://johnmilward.posterous.com